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Egyptians Vote in First Round of Parliamentary Election

Voters are going to the polls in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary election. Campaigning has been intense, but turnout early in the day was low amid reports of scattered irregularities.

Egyptian law says campaigning was to stop 24 hours before the election. Everyone is ignoring that rule.

Outside one of the busiest election centers in the Imbaba district, no fewer than six sets of loudspeakers compete to drown each other out, shouting the names of various candidates and playing music. Hundreds of men swarm around voters as they enter the schoolhouse, thrusting cards and pamphlets emblazoned with the candidates' photos.

Even one of the men running says it is a bit too much.

"Everyone is campaigning however he pleases," said independent candidate Said Gamel Hawesh. "It is very chaotic. The loudspeakers are too loud. The police should stop it, because we cannot hear a thing."

Inside, the scene is just as chaotic. Men jostle in the hallways, still handing out campaign materials, while voters scour the voter registration lists posted outside the doorways to find out where they should cast their ballots.

As in previous Egyptian elections, there are problems with the voters roll. A large number of would-be voters say they could not find their names on the voter list, and were not allowed to vote.

One man named Mahmoud was waving a paper with his voter registration number; 1881. He says he voted here during the presidential election two months ago.

"I came here to vote today but I cannot find my name on the list," he said. "I found number 1880 and then 1882. They skipped 1881. That means my name has been removed."

Voters at several polling stations had the same problem.

Down the street from one site, one of the candidates set up a kiosk with a computerized voter registration list, so people could find out exactly where they were supposed to be voting.

The calm inside the voting rooms is a far cry from the chaos in the hallways. As he made his way inside, a retired railway worker expressed his hope for the outcome.

"I really wish that whoever is elected could serve the people here," he said. "I really want that. It is my right. I have made lots of requests before, and nothing has been taken care of."

For the first time, Egypt is using ballot boxes that are partly made of glass, so everyone can see how many ballots have been dropped inside. It is also the first time that local civic groups are being allowed to monitor the voting from inside the polling stations. There were quite a few reports of irregularities as the day went on, although it was hard to tell how widespread the problems were.

The monitoring group Shayfeencom reported that police briefly closed one polling station in Cairo's Sakakini district after the judge running it was caught stuffing the ballot box for the ruling National Democratic Party candidate. Voting resumed after the judge was replaced.

The same group also said its monitors reported that three schools in the Maadi neighborhood were essentially cordoned off by thugs, who only allowed supporters of the ruling party in to vote. There were a number of reports of people being paid for their votes, which was a widespread problem in previous elections.

The parliamentary election is seen as crucial for the 15 opposition parties, because each must win at least five percent of the seats to field a candidate in the next presidential election. That means they need about 23 seats, which is significantly more than any opposition group had in the last parliament.

Turnout has been light, as expected, especially early in the day. At one location about half an hour after the polls opened, there were more candidates than voters on the scene.

Egyptians vote in three stages over the next several weeks, depending on where they live. The next rounds are November 20 and December 1. If no candidate in a given district takes more than half of the votes, a run-off will be held between the top finishers.