Post-revolution Egypt headed to the polls Monday for a chaotic election clouded by violence and a political crisis that is intended to usher in democracy in the Arab world's most populous nation.
Ten months after the end of 30 years of autocratic rule by Hosni Mubarak, ousted by popular protests in one of the seminal events of the Arab Spring, up to 40 million voters are being asked to choose a new parliament.
|Egyptian voters queue at a polling station in the Manial neighbourhood of Cairo on November 28, 2011.|
Voting initially takes place in three stages beginning on Monday in the main cities of Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, but the drawn-out and highly complex procedure will last until March and results are due at the end of that month.
The backdrop is ominous after a week of protests calling for the resignation of the interim military rulers who stepped in after Mubarak's fall. Forty-two people have been killed and more than 3,000 injured.
At the Omar Makram school, in the working class central Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra, men and women queued in separate lines before the opening of polling stations at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).
"It was no use to vote before. Our voices were completely irrelevant," Mona Abdel Moneim, one of several women who said they were voting for the first times in their lives, told AFP as she headed in to cast her ballot.
Turn-out appeared high, but administrative problems delayed the start of voting in Shubra and at other polling stations, forcing people to wait in ever-lengthening queues, AFP correspondents witnessed.
"I'm voting for the future of Egypt," declared Yussuf, a 25-year-old software engineer in the Al-Raml district of Alexandria, Egypt's second-biggest city and a major port on the Mediterranean.
"This is the first free election in our country. I hope it will be the first fair election," he told AFP.
Voting looked in danger last week as unrest gripped the country, but military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has stuck to the schedule and called for a large turnout.
In a reminder of the instability, saboteurs blew up a pipeline supplying gas to Israel in the early hours of Monday, the ninth such attack this year.
Much remains unclear about how the new parliament will function and whether it will be able to resolve a standoff with the armed forces over how much power they will retain under a new constitution to be written next year.
The results are also difficult to call, but a party set up by the formerly banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is widely expected to emerge as the largest single grouping.
Hardline Islamists, secular parties and groups representing the interests of the former Mubarak regime are all expected to win seats, raising the prospect of a highly fragmented and ideologically split new parliament.
The stakes could not be higher for Egypt, the cultural leader of the Arab world, but the conduct and results of the election will also have repercussions for the entire Middle East at a time of wrenching change.
"For most Arabs, the primary examples of democratic processes in the Arab world are in Iraq and Lebanon," said Bruce Rutherford, a Middle East specialist and author on Egypt at the US-based Colgate University.
"In both cases, elections produced weak, fragmented, and largely ineffectual governments.
"If Egypt produces the same result, then the appeal of democracy in the region may be weakened. However, if the Egyptian experience is positive... the effect could be very powerful."
Egypt, with a fast-growing population of more than 80 million, is a former British protectorate ruled by military leaders for most of its history since independence in 1922.
The fresh protests last week stemmed from fears that Tantawi and his fellow generals, initially welcomed as a source of stability in the days after Mubarak's fall, were looking to consolidate their power.
Critics say they have also been too quick to resort to the repressive techniques of the Mubarak regime, jailing dissidents and unleashing deadly violence on protesters in a bid to maintain stability.
Meanwhile, the leading new civilian powers -- a pro-democracy movement in Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood and future presidential hopefuls Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Mussa -- have been caught in the uncertainty.
The Tahrir movement is deeply divided over whether to take part in the elections and lend legitimacy to the military rulers, while the Muslim Brotherhood has supported a poll from which it expects to capitalise.
After two days of voting in the first stage of the elections for the lower parliament, other cities and regions will follow on December 14 and January 3.
After these, another round of voting will take place from January 29 for the upper house of parliament and presidential elections are to be held by no later than the end of June next year.
Mubarak, who is on trial for murder and corruption in Cairo along with his two sons, is expected to follow events on Monday from a military hospital in the capital where he is reportedly being treated for cancer.