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.
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