voters went to the polls in Egypt yesterday in the first parliamentary election since the removal nine months ago of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Yesterday’s vote and its successors in the coming months is a milestone many Egyptians hope will usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship.
But the ballot was marred by turmoil in the streets and the population is sharply polarised over the nation’s future direction.
Voters stood in long lines outside some polling centres in Cairo well before they opened, a rare sign of interest in political participation after decades of apathy.
Mr Mubarak was deposed in a popular uprising in February.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organised group, along with its Islamist allies, were expected to do well in the vote, which has been a source of concern for secular and liberal Egyptians who fear the Brotherhood will try to implement a strict version of Islamic law in the country.
For decades, few Egyptians bothered to cast ballots because nearly every election was rigged in favour of Mr Mubarak’s ruling party, whether through bribery, ballot-box stuffing or intimidation by police at the polls. Turnout was often in the single digits.
The Brotherhood entered the campaign armed with a powerful network of activists and years of experience in political activity, even though it was banned under Mr Mubarak’s regime.
That gave them an advantage over liberal, Left-wing and secular parties, most of which are newly created after the fall of Mr Mubarak, are not widely known among the public and were plagued by divisions through recent months.
The election was shaken by explosive protests by crowds demanding the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, hand over power to a civilian government.
There has been growing anger against the council, accused of bungling the transition, acting in the same authoritarian way as Mr Mubarak and failing to uproot the remnants of his regime.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the centre of the original uprising, a relatively small crowd of a few thousand remained to keep the round-the-clock protests going. Clashes during the protests have left more than 40 dead and heightened fears of violence at polling stations.
The generals decided to forge ahead with the election despite the unrest but the political crisis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, potentially rendering the parliament that emerges irrelevant.
In Alexandria, thousands braved rain and strong winds to go to the polls in the city which is a stronghold of the Brotherhood.
The election for the 498-seat People’s Assembly, parliament’s lower chamber, will be held in three stages, with different parts of the country taking turns to vote each time.
The election for the lower house ends in January. Then the whole process begins again to elect the 390-seat upper chamber, also in three stages, to conclude in March.
Run-off elections for all six stages will take place a week after each of the six rounds.
Voting in each stage has been extended by one extra day, a decision made by the armed forces to boost the turnout.