CAIRO — Egyptians cast aside worries over a new wave of unrest and waited patiently and peacefully in long lines Monday to vote in the first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, determined to reap the fruits of their uprising and have their choices count after decades of rigged polls.
The vote is expected to be the fairest and cleanest in living memory and more than anything else, it will serve as a litmus test of whether Egypt will go down a more Islamic path as other countries swept up in Arab Spring uprisings have done.
"I have hope this time," said Amal Fathy, a 50-year-old government employee who wears the Islamic veil, as she patiently waited in Cairo to vote. "I may not live long enough to see change, but my grandchildren will."
Since the uprising that forced Mubarak out nearly 10 months ago, Egyptians had looked forward to this day in expectation of a celebration of freedom after years of stifling dictatorship. But deep disappointment with the military rulers who replaced the old regime and a new wave of protests and clashes that began 10 days ago left the country deeply polarized and uncertain about the future by the eve of the election.
Many harbor deep doubts about whether elections held under military rule will really set the country on a path of democracy. Protesters who kept up their vigil in Cairo's Tahrir Square throughout election day are demanding the ruling generals immediately hand power to a civilian authority and accuse them of bungling the transition and attempting to cling to power.
The parliament that emerges may have little relevance because the military is sharply limiting its powers, and it may only serve for several months. However, the election will give the clearest picture in decades of the real strength of the various political forces in this nation of 85 million.
Adding to the disarray, the multi-phase election process, which will stretch over months, is extremely complicated. And some of the key political players claimed they just did not have enough time, or the right conditions, to organize for the vote.
There was no dancing in the streets, and no jubilation. But the mood in Egypt was hopeful, and even defiant — with many determined to either push the military from power or keep Islamist groups expected to dominate the vote in check. Despite the enormous problems the country still faces, the millions who voted had a sense that this was a turning point in the country's history.
"This was simply overwhelming. My heart was beating so fast," Sanaa el-Hawary, a 38-year-old mother of one said after she cast her vote in Cairo. "This is my life, it's my baby's life. It's my country and this is the only hope we have now."
Many were voting for the first time in their lives. For decades, few bothered to cast ballots because nearly every election was rigged and turnout was often in the single digits.
"I never voted because I was never sure it was for real. This time, I hope it is, but I am not positive," said Shahira Ahmed, 45, waiting with her husband and daughter with around 500 other people at a Cairo polling station.
Egypt under Mubarak was one of America's most important allies in the Arab world, a force of moderation to balance Islamic extremism and a loyal advocate of peace with Israel. The U.S. and Israel now worry that all that could change if a more Islamist government rises in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized group, along with other Islamists are expected to dominate the vote. Many liberals, leftists, Christians and pious Muslims who oppose mixing religion and politics went expressly to the polls to try to reduce the scope of their victory.
But the Brotherhood faces opposition. Even some who favor more religion in public life are suspicious of their motives, and the large Christian minority — about 10 percent of the population — deeply fear rising Islamism.
"I'm a Muslim but won't vote for any Islamist party because their views are too narrow," said Eman el-Khoury, 53, as she looked disapprovingly at Brotherhood activists handing out campaign leaflets near an Alexandria polling station, a violation of election rules. "How can we change this country when at an opportunity for change we make the same dirty mistakes."
For many of those who did not want to vote for the Brotherhood or other Islamists, the alternative was not clear.
"I don't know any of the parties or who I'm voting for," Teresa Sobhi, a Christian voter in the southern city of Assiut, said. "I'll vote for the first names I see I guess."
Under heavy security from police and soldiers, the segregated lines of men and women grew, snaking around blocks in some places, prompting authorities to extend voting by two hours.
Waiting for hours, people joked, squabbled, and bought sandwiches from delivery men who saw an eager, captive market.
Under a heavy rain in Alexandria, a women's line showed Egypt's religious spectrum — Christians, Muslims with their hair loose, others in conservative headscarves, still others blanketed in the most radical garb, the black robes that cover a woman's entire body, leaving only the eyes exposed. At a nearby station, one soldier shouted through a megaphone: "Choose freely, choose whomever you want to vote for."
Outside one polling center in Cairo, women who had been waiting for five hours chanted "We will not give up, we will not give up."
At another station, an army officer yelled at hundreds of women restlessly waiting to vote: "If you have waited for 30 years, can't you wait now for another hour?"
In many polling centers, female voters appeared to outnumber men, shattering barriers in this conservative society where women are often dismissed or taken lightly.
Some brought their children along, saying they wanted them to learn how to exercise their rights in a democracy.
With fears of violence largely unrealized, complaints appeared to do mostly with the organization rather than attempts at fraud.
The biggest complaint was the long waits to vote, polling stations opening late or running out of ballots. There were also campaigning outside polling centers in violation of the law.
Supporters of the Freedom and Justice party, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, were outside some polling centers with laptops, giving voters information on where they should cast their ballots. But they dispensed the information on large cards with the logo of the party on one side and the name and photographs of its candidates printed on the other.
Supporters of the party also appeared to be allowed to maintain security in some centers and to help elderly voters cast ballots.
"I am voting for freedom. We lived in slavery. Now we want justice in freedom," said 50-year-old Iris Nawar. "We are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. But we lived for 30 years under Mubarak, we will live with them, too."
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. Also running is 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.
In contrast, the secular and liberal youth groups that ousted Mubarak failed to capitalize on their astonishing triumph to effectively contest the election. They largely had to create all-new parties from scratch, most of which are not widely known among the public and were plagued by divisions through the past months.
"The Muslim Brotherhood are the people who have stood by us when times were difficult," said Ragya el-Said, a 47-year-old lawyer in Alexandria, a stronghold for the Brotherhood. "We have a lot of confidence in them."
The long lines, and also the last-minute extension of the voting for an extra day on Tuesday, pointed to a respectable turnout among the estimated 50 million voters. A high turnout could work against the Brotherhood, whereas a low turnout could undermine the credibility of the vote and boost the protesters.
The Egyptian election is the fruit of the Arab Spring revolts that have swept the region over the past year, toppling several authoritarian regimes. In Tunisia and Morocco, Islamic parties have come out winners in elections the past month. But if that happens in Egypt, with its much larger population and long history as one of the predominate moderate and secular countries in the Arab world, it will have greater impact.
On Monday in Tahrir, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak uprising, a crowd of some 2,000 remained to keep the round-the-clock protests going. Clashes during the protests left more than 40 dead have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
Standing outside the tent where he has camped since Friday in Tahrir, protester Ibrahim Hassan, 22, said it was wrong to have elections before the military gives up power and when members of Mubarak's ruling party can still run. The military will use parliament, he said.
"So they'll elect a parliament, but they won't give it any power or let it write the constitution. So what's the point?" he said.
A popular Facebook page that played a crucial role in mobilizing protesters in the anti-Mubarak uprising indicated how the election has thrown Tahrir's die-hard revolutionaries into confusion. It said everyone should vote, but must wear black when they go to cast ballots in mourning for the 43 killed in last week's protests.
"We will go to the elections because it is the first step on the path of taking power back from the military, who we believe should go quickly back to their barracks," said the page, We Are All Khaled Said.
The election is a long and unwieldy process with multiple stages. Different provinces take their turn voting in each round. Voting for 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will last until January, then elections for the 390-member upper house will drag on until March.Comment on this story
Each round lasts two days. Some voters said they feared vote rigging or ballot stuffing because the ballot boxes would be left at polling stations overnight. Monday and Tuesday's vote will take place in nine provinces whose residents account for 24 million of Egypt's estimated 85 million people.
The ballots are a confusing mix of party lists that will gain seats according to proportions of votes and individual candidates — who will have to enter run-off votes after each round if no one gets 50 percent of the first-round vote.