Enormous queues of voters turned out yesterday for an election which could eventually remould the Middle East, as Egypt's first democratic ballot in decades appeared to pass off without violence.
Lines stretching for more than half a mile began developing early in the morning as Egyptians emerged in droves for a poll unlike any since the military coup of 1952, which ushered in 60 years of autocracy.
"This is the first step in the road of democracy," said Farouk Hamdi, 27, a lawyer voting in Shubra, an area of northern Cairo where large numbers of Christians live. "There is a very difficult road ahead but I am positive about the future."
For the past few weeks, the streets have been alive with the kind of electoral energy unthinkable in the time of the former President, Hosni Mubarak, or his predecessors.
Egyptians have spent years living through predictable, pre-wired elections. But yesterday voters were presented with a choice of more than 55 political groups competing for the 498 seats in Egypt's lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly.
Neighbourhoods were festooned with posters and banners advertising the campaigns of more than 6,600 candidates, with politicians from the hard left to ultra-conservative religious right aiming to claim seats. The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to be the biggest winner, fulfilling a decades-old ambition of rising to power after years of persecution by successive regimes.
A huddle of girls in headscarves standing outside a polling station in northern Cairo told The Independent why they would be voting for the Freedom and Justice Party, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood established after Mr Mubarak was deposed.
"They will be better than the other parties at running the country," said one of the girls, before she was shooed away by an older woman. Another voter in Shubra, Mohammad Sobhi, a retired army officer, said he too would vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. Sitting in a teahouse with a newspaper folded on his lap, the 62-year-old said: "Islam has a solution to every problem in the world."
Before yesterday's poll there were fears that the first round of voting could be marred by abuses reminiscent of Mubarak's time. Human rights groups criticised media coverage of the parties in the run-up to the ballot. According to Mona Nader, of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights, the agenda of state-run newspapers such as Al-Ahram has been biased against a slew of new, secular parties that have emerged since Mubarak's fall. "These papers totally ignored the liberal parties," she said.
Others criticised the choice of judges who were selected to oversee the election process. "They are the same judges who monitored the last elections," said Bassem Samir, of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, referring to the widely discredited parliamentary poll of 2010.
But with tens of thousands of troops dispatched to polling stations across the country, there were few reports of serious violence – a far cry from previous elections when mobs of baltagi, or hired government thugs, disrupted the process.
Yet the road remains dangerously uneven. Activists still have their stranglehold on Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding from their tent city that the Military Council immediately hands power to an interim civilian government.
"The elections are fake. They are bullshit," said Mohammad Habib, 37, in central Cairo yesterday. "It's not right to kill us and then ask us to vote," he added, referring to recent unrest in which dozens of protesters were killed.
Elections to Egypt's lower house are not due to end until January, while voting for the Shura Council, the legislature's upper house, will not conclude until March.
The contenders: Egypt's political parties
Freedom and Justice Party
Widely predicted to be the biggest winner of the parliamentary poll, the party, led by Mohammed Morsi, was established by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned under the former regime. It says it is seeking a constitution that respects Muslims and non-Muslims; it calls for gender equality, but says women must strike a balance between family duties and public life.
The oldest party in Egypt, led by businessman Al-Sayyid al-Badawi, right, was once at the forefront of liberal politics as one of the few opposition parties licensed by Mubarak. It now faces a challenge from the emergence of many other, younger liberal parties, and was criticised for its participation in 2010's sham elections. Formerly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, it is now running independently. It advocates a liberal economy with a strong public sector.
The Free Egyptians Party
The main liberal counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood, it believes in establishing a civil state, a position opposed by Islamists. The party, founded by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, above, has leaders including Hani Sarie-Eldin, a former chairman of the Egyptian Capital Market Authority. It advocates free-market policies, the separation of state and religion, ending class inequalities and expanding the middle class.
This was the first party set up by Salafists, who follow a strict interpretation of Islam. It wants sharia law and advocates freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and stronger local government. It also wants job creation through small and medium-sized firms, and banks to use Islamic financing that avoids charging interest. Pictured above is candidate Nada Abo El-Maty.