After 10 days of violence, Egypt's larger northern cities were calm, as people in the tens of thousands waited in long lines to vote for their new government.
Police were ever-present, keeping the peace but also reminding voters of the clashes that had punctuated the last days before the historic election, the first since former President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February. More than 40 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured in the 10 days leading up to the election, as the ruling military council tried to keep a lid on simmering frustration with what many protesters saw as the glacial pace of reform. Mubarak is gone, of course, but the interim prime minister is a familiar face, an ex-Mubarak appointee, and the generals running the country have a long history of ties to Mubarak and his government.
Nearly 17 million people are eligible to vote in this first two days of voting. Announcements of winners are expected by Wednesday, although a run-off of too-close-to-call races will take place on December 5. In addition to the elected seats, voters will be selecting members of political party lists. It is in both areas that the well organized Muslim Brotherhood, long a force of opposition to Mubarak's rule, is expected to excel. Members of the party stood outside many polling stations, offering advice to voters. (Such a practice, which would not be allowed in other countries, is legal in Egypt.) Their party is the Freedom and Justice Party.
The voting in the first two days took place in nine of Egypt's 27 provinces, including in the large cities of Cairo and Alexandria. The second two-day voting phase will take place on December 14, and the last will occur in January. In all, 2,357 independent candidates are running for a total of 57 seats and 1,452 party-affiliated candidates are running for a total of 112 seats.
A surprisingly large number of Egyptians going to the polls are illiterate. To overcome this seeming barrier, many candidates were assigned illustrations to accompany their names. Some of these illustrations were straightforward, like a laptop to signify a blogger. Others were more colorful if bewildering, such as an umbrella or a tractor or a fork or a coffee grinder. The illustrations were assigned by the election commission, and not all candidates were pleased with their assigned images.
In a stark reminder of how much religious tradition runs deep in the country, men and women voted in separate lines. They waited patiently for hours, stopping their forward progress only for daily prayers.