Egyptians flocked to the polls on Monday for a first post-revolution election, making a mostly orderly and joyous start to their transition to democracy after a week of violence and political crisis.
Ten months since 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.
"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 time, told AFP in the Shubra district of Cairo.
Voting for the lower house of parliament is taking place in three stages beginning in the main cities of Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, with the moderate Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood expected to triumph.
The highly complex procedure to elect a full assembly will end in March.
The backdrop was ominous after a week of protests calling for the resignation of the interim military rulers who stepped in after Mubarak's fall, with 42 people killed and more than 3,000 injured.
Voting passed off peacefully and the polling booths closed at the extended time of 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) to enable the thousands who waited for hours in long queues to cast their ballots.
"We were surprised that people turned out to vote in large numbers, thank God," Abdel Moez Ibrahim, who heads the High Judicial Elections Commission (HJEC), told reporters, adding that there had been no security problems.
The poll was endangered last week as unrest gripped the country, but military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi stuck defiantly to the schedule and called for a large turnout.
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 formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group, is widely expected to emerge as the largest power but without an outright majority when results for the lower parliament are published on January 13.
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 legislature.
"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 Mediterranean port.
"This is the first free election in our country. I hope it will be the first fair election," he told AFP.
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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 dissent.
The leading new civilian powers -- a pro-democracy movement in iconic Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood and future presidential hopefuls Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Mussa -- have been caught in the uncertainty.
The Tahrir movement, named after the square where protests began against Mubarak, is deeply divided over whether to take part in the elections and lend legitimacy to the military rulers.
By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has supported a poll from which it expects to capitalise.
"We expect to win. We've been working with the people for a long time," one volunteer, Fayiz Mohammed Shaarawi, told AFP outside a polling station in the Manian district of Cairo.
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.
Mubarak, who is on trial for murder and corruption along with his two sons, is expected to be following events from a Cairo military hospital where he is reportedly being treated for cancer.