Shaking off years of political apathy, Egyptians on Monday began voting in their nation's first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a giant step toward what many in the country hope will be a democratic Egypt after decades of dictatorship.
The landmark election has already been marred by turmoil in the streets, 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, and long lines outside polling centers early in the day pointed to a respectable turnout.
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 eager to keep religion and politics separate.
Voters stood in long lines outside some polling centers in Cairo well before they opened at 8 a.m. local time (0600GMT), a rare sign of interest in political participation after decades of apathy created by the mass rigging of almost every election.
The last parliamentary vote held under Mubarak, who was forced to step down in February after an 18-day uprising, was in November and December last year. That vote was heavily rigged, and Mubarak's then-ruling party won all but a handful of seats.
“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.
In the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, some 500 voters waited in line outside a polling station in a school. Shahira Ahmed, 45, was there with her husband and daughter. Like Nawar, Ahmed was casting her first ballot.
“I never voted because I was never sure it was for real. This time, I hope it is, but I am not positive. The most important thing is to have a liberal and a civilized country, I mean no fanatics,” she said, alluding to the Islamists, who hope their domination of the next parliament will bring them closer to realizing their dream of creating an Islamic Egypt.
The election is taking place with protesters back on the streets. This time, they are demanding that military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his council of generals, accused of bungling the transition, step down immediately. Nine days of clashes that have left more than 40 dead have heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
More critically, the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, potentially rendering the parliament that emerges irrelevant.
Egypt's military rulers, who took over from Mubarak, decided to forge ahead with the elections despite the new wave of unrest, scenes starkly reminiscent of the anti-Mubarak uprising. 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.
Tantawi and other generals have pledged to ensure a clean election, and large numbers of troops and police were deployed on Monday to protect thousands of polling centers. Foreign groups sent missions to witness the vote, but officially the military banned international election observers.
The election for the 498-seat People's Assembly, parliament's lower chamber, will be held in three stages ending in January. Voting will then begin for the 390-seat upper chamber, also in three stages, to conclude in March.
Monday's vote will take 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.
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.
In 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.
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.”
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo, Hadeel al-Shalchi in Alexandria, Egypt contributed to this report.