CAIRO Egyptians go to the polls on Monday for the country's first free parliamentary election in living memory, but many don't know where to vote, let alone who they should vote for.
Voters, emerging from decades of oppression, will have to choose between a confusing mass of candidates and rival parties. [ID:nL5E7MQ0CJ]
Analysts fear the result of the historic ballot could turn on the last minute decisions of an inexperienced electorate, who have only been given a few weeks to come to grips with a highly complex voting system.
"I have never voted before ... How are we supposed to tell anyone apart?" asked Saher Ahmed, pointing to hundreds of posters and banners festooning a road in the working class district of Shubra. She was still determined to caste her ballot.
With more than 6,000 candidates competing for the individual seats and more than 400 party lists, some fear the confusion favors those already with a foothold in politics - namely the Muslim Brotherhood and people formerly linked to deposed President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
In Ahmed's district, she will have to pick one party list to represent her district, as well as two candidates from over 149 choices for individuals seats.
Egypt has chosen an intricate system for its first free vote in decades. Two-thirds of the 498 lower house seats will be picked by proportional representation, while the remaining third are open to individuals, who may or may not have party affiliations.
Many of the candidates are virtually unknown.
Fathi Mustafa, 75, has never seen anything like the election paraphernalia on display in the wealthy Cairo residential area of Zamalek.
"I do not know one from the other. I do not know where they are from or what they are going to do," said Mustafa, joking that voting was more straightforward in the days of Mubarak, when elections were rigged.
Mustafa said he would not vote. "I'll stay at home," he told Reuters.
The election for 498 seats in the lower house of parliament will be held over three phases split into 12 days of voting which end in early January. After that, there are three more stages of voting for the upper house, which end in March.
The official body overseeing the elections, human rights organizations, candidates and civic-minded individuals have all been trying hard to educate voters ahead of the vote.
State television managers, slavishly loyal to Mubarak's ruling party in past elections, says they have broadcast more than 700 hours of election coverage, including 337 hours of free adverts for parties and awareness campaigns.
Celebrities, like folk poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, sports stars and ordinary Egyptians have appeared in TV campaigns urging people to vote.
But many voters remain far from convinced.
"I have no clue about any of the candidates in my district and I don't trust any party as I have never seen it practicing politics before in a free environment," said Wael Aly, a 35-year old accountant.
"I fear that we will end up with a weak parliament that will not be strong enough to take strong actions or face strong powers like the army," he said. "May God be with us."
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens)