CAIRO -- Eager for their first taste of a free vote in decades, Egyptians lined up by the hundreds Saturday to vote on constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling military that critics fear could propel the country's largest Islamist group to become Egypt's most dominant political force.
The nationwide referendum is the first major test of the country's transition to democracy after a popular uprising forced longtime leader Hosni Mubarak to step down five weeks ago, handing the reins of power to the military.
Early signs show an unusually big turnout, with lines forming in the hours before polls opened. They snaked along the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, with men and women standing in separate lines as is customary in the conservative and mainly Muslim nation.
The vote promises to be the freest in Egypt since the 1952 ouster of the monarchy and the end of a multiparty democracy that functioned under British colonial rule. Egypt has since been ruled by men of military background, with fraud and extremely low turnout defining every nationwide vote.
"This is a historic day for Egypt," Deputy Prime Minister Yahya al-Gamal told reporters after casting his vote in Cairo. "I had never seen such large numbers of voters in Egypt. Finally, the people of Egypt have come to realize that their vote counts."
Voters were asked to choose 'yes' or 'no' for the whole package of nine changes, which would open elections to independent candidates, impose presidential term limits and curtail 30-year-old emergency laws that give police near-unlimited powers. Preliminary results will be announced Sunday.
A "yes" vote would allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year or early in the next, a timeframe that critics say is too soon for the dozens of political groups born out of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising to organize themselves and be able to effectively compete in elections.
Instead, they say, the timeframe would benefit Mubarak's one-time ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood – archrivals and the two most powerful and best-organized political groups in Egypt.
The NDP is blamed for the rampant corruption and the fraud that marred every election in Egypt during Mubarak's 29-year rule. The Brotherhood, which has strongly campaigned for the adoption of the changes, advocates the installment of an Islamic government in Egypt. The ambivalence of its position on the role of women and minority Christians worry large segments of society.
Leading the "no" campaign are two presidential hopefuls – Nobel laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency Mohamed ElBaradei, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who also a former foreign minister in Egypt.
"This is a truly democratic process," Moussa told reporters after he voted in Cairo.
ElBaradei told reporters Friday in New Delhi that Egypt's newly formed political parties need more time to prepare for elections after decades of repression.
Egypt's Coptic Christians also were overwhelmingly against the amendments. Comprising 10 percent of the population, Christians complain of institutional discrimination and fear that their quest for equal rights would suffer a serious setback if the Brotherhood gains influence in post-Mubarak Egypt.
"If the Brotherhood comes to power, they will not benefit anyone, Muslims or Christians," said Fawziya Lamie, a 39-year-old Christian nanny after casting a "no" vote in the Cairo district of Manial.
More than half of Egypt's 80 million people are eligible voters. the military, in a bid to get the vote out, has decreed that they would be allowed to cast ballots at any polling center in the country with their national ID cards – issued to those 18 and older – as the only required proof of identity.
They are required to dip their index finger in ink after voting to prevent multiple balloting.
Lack of faith in the process, along with violence and intimidation, have kept most voters away from past elections. But Egyptians – buoyed by the mass protests that led to Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster – have found a new trust in the system.
"My vote today will make a difference. It's as simple as that," first-time voter Hossam Bishay, 48, said as he waited in line with about 300 others outside a heavily guarded polling center in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district.
"I am very excited to be doing this," Alaa al-Sharqawy, an engineering lecturer, said. "It's true that the amendments have polarized us, but I am glad we are voting."
The constitutional amendments drawn up by a panel of military-appointed legal scholars are intended to bring just enough change to the current constitution – which was adopted in 1971 and suspended by the military after it came to power – to ensure that upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are free and fair.
In addition to allowing independent and opposition candidates to run, they would restore full judicial supervision of votes, a measure seen as key to preventing fraud. They would also limit presidents to two four-year terms and curb the emergency laws that have long been a chief complaint of the people.
Critics have used social networks like Facebook and Twitter and full-page ads in newspapers to argue that the entire constitution must be scrapped and a new one drawn up to guarantee that Egypt is spared future dictators.