CAIRO – Shaking off years of political apathy, Egyptians turned out in long lines at voting stations Monday in the first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a giant step toward what they hope will be a democracy after decades of dictatorship.
Some voters brought their children along, saying they wanted them to learn how to exercise their rights in a democracy as they cast ballots in what promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory. With fears of violence largely unrealized, the biggest complaint was the hours of standing in long, slow-moving lines.
"If you have waited for 30 years, can't you wait now for another hour?" an army officer yelled at hundreds of restless women at one polling center in Cairo.
After the dramatic, 18-day uprising that ended Mubarak's three decades of authoritarian rule, many had looked forward to this day in expectation of a celebration of freedom. But Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11 was followed by nearly 10 months of military rule, divisions and violence and when election day finally arrived, the mood was markedly different. People were eager to at last cast a free vote, but daunted by all the uncertainty over what happens next.
"I never voted because I was never sure it was for real," said Shahira Ahmed, 45, waiting with her husband and daughter with around 500 other people at a Cairo polling station. "This time, I hope it is, but I am not positive."
Even as they vote, Egyptians are sharply polarized and confused over the nation's direction.
On one level, the election will be a strong indicator of whether Egypt is heading toward Islamism or secularism. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized group, along with other Islamists are expected to dominate in the vote. Many liberals, leftists, Christians and pious Muslims who oppose mixing religion and politics went expressly to the polls to try to stop them or at least reduce their victory.
The U.S. and its close ally Israel, which has a long-standing peace treaty with Egypt, worry that stronger Brotherhood influence could end Egypt's role as a major moderating influence in Middle East politics.
Also weighing heavily on voters' mind was whether this election can really set Egypt on a path of democracy while it is still under military rule. Only 10 days before the elections, major protests erupted around the country demanding the ruling generals accused of bungling the transition step aside and hand power immediately to a civilian authority.
Another concern is that the parliament that emerges may have little relevance because the military is sharply limiting its powers, and it may only serve for several months.
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 the much larger Egypt does the same, it could have an even greater impact.
Even before voting began at 8 a.m., people stood in lines stretching several hundred yards outside many polling stations in Cairo, suggesting a respectable turnout. Under heavy security from police and soldiers, segregated lines of men and women grew, snaking around blocks and prompting authorities to extend voting by two hours.
Many said they were voting for the first time. For decades, few Egyptians bothered to cast ballots because nearly every election was rigged, whether by 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 at a polling station in 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.
Waiting for hours, people joked, squabbled, and bought sandwiches from delivery men taking advantage of an eager, captive market.
Under a heavy rain in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, a women's line displayed Egypt's religious spectrum -- Christians and 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."
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, its politicians sat in parliament as independents. 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."
But the Brotherhood faces still 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 of around 85 million -- 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."
The election is a long and unwieldy process. It will be held in stages divided up by provinces. 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.
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. Mixed in are candidates labeled as "farmer" or "worker" who must gain a certain number of seats, a holdover for socialist days that Mubarak's regime manipulated to get in cronies.
Moreover, there are significant questions over how relevant the new parliament will even be. The ruling military council of generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, insists it will maintain considerable powers after the election. It will put together the government and is trying to keep extensive control over the creation of an assembly to write a new constitution, a task that originally was seen as mainly in the parliament's hands.
The protesters who took to Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities since Nov. 19 in rallies recalling the uprising that ousted Mubarak on Feb. 11 demand the generals surrender power immediately to a civilian government.
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 Tahrir, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand kept the round-the-clock protests going. Clashes during the protests left more than 40 dead and had heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
Turnout among the estimated 50 million voters will play a key role. A higher turnout could water down the showing of the Brotherhood, because its core of supporters are the most likely to vote.
If there are heavy numbers of voters, that could also give legitimacy to a vote that the military insisted go ahead despite the recent turmoil.
A referendum on constitutional amendments in March had a turnout of 40 percent -- anything lower than that could be a sign that skepticism over the process is high.
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.