Egyptians flocked to polling stations on Monday for their first free election in living memory, part of a transition born in revolutionary euphoria but now tinged by distrust of the generals who replaced Hosni Mubarak.

This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history, said Walid Atta, 34, an engineer waiting to vote at a school on his way to work in Alexandria.

In the nine months since a popular revolt ended Mubarak's 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focussed on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into bloody protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June - much sooner than previously envisaged.

There were no reports of serious election-day violence. But scuffles among women voters erupted at one Alexandria polling station that opened late because ballot papers had not arrived.

Tents of protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule still stood in Cairo's Tahrir Square, but after heavy overnight rain, only a few score demonstrators had stayed on.

At least 1,000 people were queuing outside one polling station in the central Cairo district of Zamalek when voting started at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT). The line stretched around the block. Posters of candidates and parties festooned the street.

We are very happy to be here and to be part of the election, said Wafa Zaklama, 55, voting for the first time in a parliamentary election. What was the point before?

In rain-washed Alexandria, Egypt's second city, men and women voted in long, separate queues. I am here to cast my vote. This is a national duty in this time of crisis, said Abdullah Metwali, 55, voting on his way to work.

Campaign posters for Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the Salafi Nour Party and the moderate Wasat Party festooned streets nearby. Troops outnumbered police guarding polling stations.

SEGREGATED VOTING

The segregated voting for men and women in Alexandria and many other places was 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.

A host of parties have been formed since the removal of Mubarak, who routinely rigged elections to ensure that his now-dissolved National Democratic Party dominated parliament.

About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house, which will be completed on January 11. Under a complex electoral system, voters pick both party lists and individual candidates.

The return of protesters to Tahrir Square and last week's violent street confrontations clouded the run-up to Egypt's first free election in six decades.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

In the Nile Delta city of Damietta, some voters said they would punish the Brotherhood for its perceived opportunism.

I expect the Salafis to win, mainly because of people's recent enmity to the (Brotherhood's) FJP. People started to hate them because they see that their goals ... have to do with parliamentary seats, said Ayman Soliman, 35, a tour operator who said he would vote for the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.

I think the Brotherhood has lost more in the past three months than it built in the last three decades, he said.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has formidable advantages that include a disciplined organisation, name recognition among a welter of little-known parties and a record of opposing Mubarak long before the popular revolt that swept him from power.

In the central Cairo district of Bulaq, FJP activists in white caps held placards outside a polling station to help voters identify their two candidates for the district.

BENCHMARK OF PROGRESS

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Centre, said the vote was the first benchmark in Egypt's transition.

It will also tell us how much Egyptians are invested in this political process. If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don't believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.

Early signs suggested Egyptians were enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.

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.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said on Sunday the new assembly would have no right to remove an army-appointed government using its presidential powers.

In an eastern suburb of Cairo, Amir Makar, 23, said he was voting, but with few illusions about Egypt's future. After Shahin's comments and this week's events, I'm quite cynical about the whole endeavour, he said.

A queue of women voters snaked for hundreds of metres (yards). One woman said: I think if I went to work and came back, this line still wouldn't have moved.

A little girl asked her mother: Where did all these people come from? Her mother replied: Look my child, this is a small picture of what millions like us are doing. This is what you will have when you grow up: a voice.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice quickly rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favour of a civilian body to oversee the transition to democracy.

The military had envisaged that once upper house elections are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

The faster timetable agreed under pressure from the street has thrown up many questions about how the process will unfold and how much influence the army will retain behind the scenes.

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing them as causing, not curing, instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Judges were supervising polling stations to guard against the ballot-stuffing, intimidation and other abuses of the past.

By the end of the day, the ballot box, room and the whole school will be sealed with red wax, said Mohamed Refaat, a judge from the southern city of Assiut who was supervising an increasingly crowded polling station in Alexandria.

(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 Mark Heinrich)

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