CAIRO — Shaking off years of political apathy, Egyptians turned out in long lines at voting stations Monday in their nation's first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a giant step toward what they hope will be a democracy after decades of dictatorship.
The landmark election has already been overshadowed by turmoil in the streets over the past week, and the population is sharply polarized and confused over the nation's direction. Still, the vote promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized group, along with its Islamist allies are expected to do well in the vote, which has been a source of concern for secular and liberal Egyptians who fear the Brotherhood will try to implement a strict version of Islamic law in the country.
Early in the day, voters stood in lines stretching several hundred yards outside some polling centers in Cairo well before they opened at 8 a.m. local time (0600GMT), suggesting a respectable turnout. Many said they were voting for the first time, a sign of an enthusiasm that in this election one's vote mattered.
For decades, few Egyptians bothered to cast ballots because nearly every election was rigged in favor of Mubarak's ruling party, whether through bribery, ballot box stuffing or intimidation by police at the polls. Turnout was often in the single digits.
"I am voting for freedom. We lived in slavery. Now we want justice in freedom," said 50-year-old Iris Nawar as she was about to vote in the district of Maadi, a Cairo suburb.
"We are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But we lived for 30 years under Mubarak, we will live with them, too," said Nawar, a first-time voter.
The Brotherhood entered the campaign armed with a powerful network of activists around the country and years of experience in political activity, even though it was banned under Mubarak's regime. Love them or hate them, Egyptians know them. That gave them what many see as an automatic leg up over liberal, leftist and secular parties, most of which are newly created after the Feb. 11 fall of Mubarak, are not widely known among the public and were plagued by divisions through the past months.
But also weighing heavily on voters' mind was the question of whether this election will really set Egypt on a path of democracy amid the stormy politics of the past months under the rule of the military, which took power after Mubarak's fall.
The election was shaken by explosive protests the past 10 days by crowds demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, hand over power to a civilian government. There has been growing anger against the council, accused of bungling the transition, acting in the same authoritarian way as Mubarak and failing to uproot the remnants of his regime. Some fear it intends to hold on to power, though it has promised to step aside at the end of June.
Some hoped their vote would help eventually push the generals out.
"We are fed up with the military," said Salah Radwan, waiting outside a polling center in Cairo's middle-class Abdeen neighborhood. "They should go to protect our borders and leave us to rule ourselves. Even if we don't get it right this time, we will get it right next time."
On Monday morning in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the center of the original uprising, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand remained to keep the round-the-clock protests going. Clashes during the protests have left more than 40 dead have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
The generals decided to forge ahead with the election despite the unrest. But the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, potentially rendering the parliament that emerges irrelevant.
In the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, thousands of voters braved rain and strong winds to go to the polls. Long lines formed outside polling centers, with voters huddling under umbrellas. At one polling center in the Raml neighborhood, around a half dozen army soldiers stood guard by the ballot boxes inside.
"Choose freely, choose whomever you want to vote for," said one soldier, using a microphone.
By late morning Monday, there were no reports of foul play or violence.
Alexandria is a stronghold of the Brotherhood and many voters said they would vote for the group, which spent some six decades as an outlawed organization before it became legal following Mubarak's ouster.
"The Muslim Brotherhood are the people who have stood by us when times were difficult," said Ragya el-Said, a 47-year-old lawyer. "We have a lot of confidence in them."
The Brotherhood is facing competition on the religious vote, however, particularly from the even more conservative Salafi movement, which advocates a hard-line Saudi Arabian-style interpretation of Islam. While the Brotherhood shows at times a willingness to play politics and compromise in its ideology, many Salafis make no bones about saying democracy must take a back seat to Islamic law.
For many of those who did not want to vote for the Brotherhood or other Islamists, the alternative was not clear amid the mix of nonreligious parties.
"I don't know any of the parties or who I'm voting for," she said. "I'll vote for the first names I see I guess," said Teresa Sobhi, a Christian voter in the southern city of Assiut. Still, she said, "there may be hope for Egypt at last, to build it from scratch."
The region is a bastion of Islamists, but also has a significant Christian population.
Across the city in the Walidiya district, teenager Ahmed Gamal was handing flyers urging voters to support the Nour Party of the Salafis.
"We used to be arrested by police under Mubarak for just going to the mosque. Our Nour party will now implement Islamic laws," he enthused as he handed the flyers to voters waiting in line — a violation of rules barring campaigning at polling centers.
Back in Cairo, Shahira Ahmed, 45, was in line with her husband and daughter along with some 500 voters outside a polling station in a school in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek. She said she was hoping liberals can at least establish some presence in parliament — "to have a liberal and a civilized country, I mean no fanatics."
And, like many, she was still not sure whether democracy was really on the horizon.
"I never voted because I was never sure it was for real. This time, I hope it is, but I am not positive."
Not only was there confusion over the candidates, but the election system is unweildy and muddled, stretched out in multiple stages.
The election that began Monday is for the 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will be held in three stages, with different parts of the country taking turns to vote each time. Monday's vote was taking place in nine provinces whose residents account for 24 million of Egypt's estimated 85 million people. Most prominent of the nine provinces are Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city.
The election for the lower house ends in January. Then the whole process begins again to elect the 390-seat upper chamber, also in three stages, to conclude in March.
Run-off elections for all six stages will take place a week after each of the six rounds. Voting in each stage has been extended by one extra day, a decision made by the military to boost the turnout.
Predicting this election has been extremely difficult simply because the fall of Mubarak makes it difficult to use past elections as a guide. The last parliamentary vote held under Mubarak, in November and December last year, was heavily rigged and Mubarak's then-ruling party won all but a handful of seats.
The Brotherhood, which used to run its candidates as independents because of the official ban on the group, made its strongest showing in elections in 2005, when it won 20 percent of parliament's seats. Its leaders have predicted that in this vote it could win up to 40 or 50 percent.
AP correspondents Maggie Michael in Cairo, Hadeel al-Shalchi in Alexandria, Egypt, and Aya Batrawy in Assiut, Egypt contributed to this report.