Egyptians voted on Monday in the first election since a popular revolt toppled Hosni Mubarak's one-man rule, showing new-found faith in the ballot box that may sweep long-banned Islamists into parliament even as army generals cling to power.
Voters swarmed to the polls in a generally peaceful atmosphere despite the unrest that marred the election run-up, when 42 people were killed in protests demanding an immediate transition from military to civilian rule.
We want to make a difference, although we are depressed by what the country has come to, said Maha Amin, a 46-year-old pharmacy lecturer, before she voted in an upscale Cairo suburb.
The ruling army council, which has already extended polling to a second day, kept voting stations open an extra two hours until 9 p.m. to accommodate the high voter turnout.
The Muslim Brotherhood's party and other Islamists expect to do well in the parliamentary election staggered over the next six weeks, but much remains uncertain in Egypt's complex and unfamiliar voting system of party lists and individuals.
Political transformation in Egypt, traditional leader of the Arab world, will reverberate across the Middle East, where a new generation demanding democratic change has already toppled or challenged the leaders of Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Parliament's lower house will be Egypt's first nationally elected body since Mubarak's fall and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military's monopoly of power.
A high turnout throughout the election would give it legitimacy. Despite a host of reported electoral violations and lax supervision exploited by some groups, election monitors reported no systematic Mubarak-style campaign to rig the polls.
We are very happy to be part of the election, said first-time Cairo voter Wafa Zaklama, 55. What was the point before?
In the northern city of Alexandria, 34-year-old engineer Walid Atta rejoiced in the occasion. This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history, he said.
ISLAMISTS SCENT POWER
Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties have stood aloof from those challenging army rule in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere, unwilling to let anything obstruct a vote that may bring them closer to power.
In the Nile Delta city of Damietta, some voters said they would punish the Brotherhood for its perceived opportunism.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has formidable advantages that include a disciplined organisation, name recognition among a welter of little-known parties and years of opposing Mubarak.
Brotherhood organisers stood near many voting stations with laptops, offering to guide confused voters, printing out a paper identifying the correct polling booth and showing their Freedom and Justice Party candidate's name and symbol on the back.
At least they are not giving people fruit inside the polling station, said Mouna Zuffakar, of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, noting widespread breaches of a ban on campaigning near polling stations.
Many voters engaged in lively political debate as they waited patiently in long queues.
Aren't the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution? one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo's Nasr City, referring to the army's role in easing Mubarak from power. What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?
One man replied: Those in Tahrir are young men and women who are the reason why a 61-year-old man like me voted in a parliamentary election for the first time in his life today.
The world is closely watching the election, keen for stability in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, owns the Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia, and which in Mubarak's time was an ally in countering Islamist militants in the region.
Washington and its European allies have urged the generals to step aside swiftly and make way for civilian rule.
The U.S. ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, congratulated Egyptians on what appeared to be a very large turnout on this very historic occasion. British ambassador James Watt told Reuters the election was an important milestone in Egypt's democratic transition that seemed to have gone smoothly so far.
In Alexandria and elsewhere, men and women voted in separate queues, a reminder of the conservative religious fabric of Egypt's mainly Muslim society, where Coptic Christians comprise 10 percent of a population of more than 80 million.
Myriad parties have emerged since the fall of Mubarak, who fixed elections to ensure his now-defunct National Democratic Party dominated parliament. The NDP's headquarters, torched in the popular revolt, still stands like a tombstone by the Nile.
Individual winners are to be announced on Wednesday, but many contests will go to a run-off vote on December 5. List results will not be declared until after the election ends on January 11.
About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house.
Egyptians seemed enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.
It's easy to predict this will be a higher turnout than any recent election in Egypt, said Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation.
The army council has promised civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June -- much sooner than previously envisaged.
But one of its members said on Sunday the new parliament could not remove a cabinet appointed by the army.
Kamal Ganzouri, named by the army on Friday to form a new government, said he had met the ruling army council on Monday to discuss setting up a civilian advisory committee to work with his new cabinet, which he said could be unveiled by Thursday.
Polling day calm was reflected on financial markets battered by this month's unrest. The cost of insuring Egyptian debt edged lower, with five-year credit default swaps slipping 10 basis points to 539. The Egyptian pound, which last week hit its lowest point since January 2005, held steady.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry in Cairo, Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta, Yusri Mohamed in Port Said and Jonathan Wright in Fayoum; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Peter Millership)