CAIRO — Millions of Egyptians voted freely Saturday for the first time in more than half a century, joyfully waiting for hours to cast their ballots on a package of constitutional changes eliminating much-hated restrictions on political rights and civil liberties.
Young people traded mobile-phone pictures of ink-stained fingers that showed they voted. Others called relatives to boast of casting the first vote of their lives. In the well-off Cairo neighborhood of Maadi, a man hoisted his elderly, infirm father on his shoulder and carried him to a polling station.
"My vote today will make a difference. It's as simple as that," said Hossam Bishay, 48.
Preliminary results are to be announced today.
The first test of Egypt's transition to democracy offered ominous hints of widening sectarian division, however.
Many were drawn to the polls in a massive, last-minute effort by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt's largest and most coherent political organization after the widely despised National Democratic Party of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last month in a national popular uprising.
The proposed amendments limit presidents to two four-year terms, ensure judicial supervision of elections, eliminate restrictions on the formation of political parties and require a popular referendum before the country's controversial emergency law is used for more than six months.
Critics say opening the elections to independent candidates would allow the Brotherhood and NDP to easily outpoll the dozens of political groups born out of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Among those most fearful of the Brotherhood's rising power are Egypt's estimated 8 million Coptic Christians, whose leaders rallied the faithful to vote "no."
Reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and a group of his supporters were pelted with rocks, bottles and cans outside a polling center at Cairo's Mokattam district in an attack he blamed on followers of the old regime.
The day was otherwise almost entirely peaceful.
A crackdown that killed dozens failed to stop massive demonstrations against Yemen's U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as crowds of thousands clashed Saturday with security forces smashing their protest camps and even seized control of the southern city of Mualla. In the capital, Sana, the government had to bring out tank units and other military forces to protect key buildings as crowds swelled. And for the first time since demonstrators began camping out in front of Sana University calling for an end to Saleh's 32-year rule, leaders of the Joint Meetings Parties, the opposition coalition, attended the protest as a group to voice their support.
Syrian police sealed off the southern city of Daraa on Saturday, allowing residents to leave but not enter the city, said prominent Syrian rights activist Mazen Darwish. Security forces killed at least five protesters there Friday in the first sign that the Arab world's pro-democracy push is seeping into one of the region's most repressive places.
A convoy of Kuwaiti doctors and medical equipment was en route Saturday to Bahrain. Kuwait has not contributed troops to the Saudi-led force that entered Bahrain last week to support the nation's Sunni monarchy, which is reeling after more than a month of protests by majority Shiites seeking to break the dynasty's grip on power.