Egyptians began voting Monday morning in the first big test of a transition born in popular revolutionary euphoria that soured into distrust of the generals who replaced their master, Hosni Mubarak.
In the nine months since a revolt ended the ex-president's 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused 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.
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, 1 a.m. ET). 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? she asked.
Many parties have been set up in recent months after Mubarak's ouster. Under the former president, polls were routinely rigged and his National Democratic Party repeatedly secured sweeping majorities in parliament.
The first phase of voting Monday and Tuesday includes Cairo and Alexandria. The staggered voting system means the election to the lower house will not be completed until Jan. 11. Voters pick a mixture of party lists and individual candidates.
Suppressed 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.
It is not clear whether voters will punish them for that or whether the Brotherhood's disciplined organization will enable its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party to triumph over the welter of lesser-known parties and individuals in the race.
A high turnout among Egypt's 50 million eligible voters could throw up surprises, perhaps revealing whether a silent majority favors stability or the radical overhaul demanded by the youthful protesters who overthrew Mubarak.
BENCHMARK OF PROGRESS
Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the parliamentary vote phased over weeks until January was the first real benchmark of progress 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.
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 Gen. Mamdouh Shahin said the new assembly would have no right to remove a government appointed by the council using its presidential powers -- a stance the new parliament may try to challenge.
Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new Cabinet, a choice rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee a transition to democracy.
Ganzouri said Sunday that any parliamentary majority that emerged from the elections may move to install a new government.
The military had envisaged that once upper house polls 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.
(Writing by Alistair Lyon and Edmund Blair; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Elizabeth Piper)