CAIRO -- Egypt's military rulers were quick to take credit yesterday for a strong turnout in the first elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a vote that appeared to be the country's freest and fairest in living memory.
The military did not field candidates in the parliamentary vote. But winning bragging rights for a smooth, virtually fraud-free election would significantly boost the ruling generals in their bitter struggle with youthful protesters in Tahrir Square calling for them to transfer power to a civilian authority.
"When we plan, we execute and, at the end, we succeed," Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling military council, said in a television interview. He compared the elections to one of the Egyptian military's proudest moments -- when they battled Israeli forces across the Suez Canal in 1973.
"The armed forces pulled off this election like they pulled off the crossing in 1973," he said.
Even before two days of voting began Monday, protesters were accusing the military of trying to cling to power and safeguard its interests under a future government. Now, they warn the ruling council will try to use the success of the election to cement its hold on power.
Already, the ruling council's perceived success seems to have taken the wind out of Tahrir protests, at least temporarily. The square that was the center of the anti-Mubarak uprising had as many vendors as protesters yesterday. Several small groups of older men intensely debating politics was the only sign of political activity.
"I voted yesterday and returned to Tahrir. I found it empty except for the vendors," said Samer Suliman, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo and a founder of the Social Democratic party. "I think the military won big from the elections."
Etman estimated the turnout for the first round of voting at 70 percent and the head of the elections commission said it was "massive" but gave no figures.
There will be two more rounds of voting for a parliament in the coming months and a series of runoffs. The process will not be completed until March.