Egyptian soldiers maintain order as voters wait to cast ballots in Alexandria. (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany, Reuters )
Reporting from Cairo — Hanan Milad, a house painter's wife with two children and one on the way, stood outside a polling station Monday, biting her lip and praying for patience as crowds swelled and ballots arrived late in Egypt's first free elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
"I can't wait all day to vote," Milad said as soldiers stood guard at the edge of a cement factory. "But I'm here because I want a future for my children. The revolution inspired us. You can see people are poor here. We don't know a lot about politics, but we have hope."
Scattered delays were met with determination as Egyptians, despite recent deadly protests and uncertainty about the nation's fate, rekindled the spirit that propelled their historic rebellion 10 months ago. They complained but they also laughed, enduring long lines to cast ballots in an electoral battle between Islamists and secularists certain to set the tone for emerging democracies across the region.
A moderate Islamist party won elections last month in Tunisia and Egypt's dominant Muslim Brotherhood may follow suit in capturing a major share of parliament. An emerging political Islam is poised to replace secular autocrats swept away in a year of upheaval, but in Egypt, Islamists face pressure from the generals Mubarak appointed to guard his secular state.
Before this nation could again inspire others in the Arab world, however, it had to contend with sporadic administrative problems, including the late arrival of voter lists and supervising judges. Voting was extended by two hours in an exasperating multi-stage election in which final results in races for all 498 parliamentary seats won't be announced until January.
There was a feeling of change, from the city's dusty southern fringes to its wealthy neighborhoods of cafes and computer boutiques. The religiously devout stood in line alongside the boisterously liberal as politics — despite campaign literature swirling through the streets — wasn't so much discussed as were the remembrances and pride of those winter days when their once-untouchable leader tumbled.
Ahmed Amin, an engineer, waited outside a school along the Nile to cast a ballot. "It's a national duty that we vote today," he said. "Our votes didn't matter before. But we have to be here now. I will vote for the Islamists because they fear God and will choose the right people to reform Egypt."
Amin stood in the shadow of Tora Prison, where Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, await corruption trials. The former president, who is on trial for murder, controlled the ruling National Democratic Party, which by all accounts rigged elections for his entire three decades in office. That sinister legacy seemed to evaporate, at least for a moment, as Amin edged closer to the ballot box.
Yet the Egyptian revolution is far from complete. The nation veered from 18 days of joyous revolt to prolonged agitation marked by a downward spiraling economy, as military leaders tightened their grip on power during the political unrest and have refused to transfer it to a democratic government until the end of June. Even as voting began, a band of demonstrators, their tents sagging from a rare desert rainfall, shouted antimilitary slogans in Tahrir Square.
"Why are you still silent when your brothers got killed?" cried Mahmoud Magdelashry, referring to the more than 40 protesters who have been killed in clashes with security forces in the downtown plaza in recent days.
That question underlines Egypt's divisions, scrambled ambitions and the strange prospect of electing a parliament that for months will answer to a ruling council of generals before a new president is elected in June. There are worries too that the remnants of Mubarak's old guard, who have reinvented themselves as independent candidates, will sneak back into power
Disquieting thoughts run through the national consciousness as many Egyptians contemplate how much things have changed, yet — from the trash blowing in the streets to civil rights limitations — how much they appear the same.
Such annoyances did not deter Dawalt Ismail on Monday, as she walked over a potholed street and waited for young soldiers to let her pass into a polling station to cast her first-ever ballot.
"These elections will mean something," said the government secretary and mother of four who earns $135 a month. "We can't wait any longer. We're already behind in this revolution. We need jobs, salary increases, better housing and an end to inflation."
She looked down at the campaign pamphlets in her hand. Like many voters, she complained of a short and erratic campaign season that failed to adequately introduce candidates to constituents.
"I came here expecting to vote for the Salafis [ultraconservative Islamists]," she said. "But I'm wondering now if putting too much religion into politics is a good idea."