CAIRO // Egyptians waited patiently yesterday to vote on amendments to change the country's constitution that would limit the president to two four-year terms, remove certain restrictions on presidential candidacies and scrap the emergency law.
Long lines formed outside a voting centre in Cairo from early morning, a taste of democracy after Hosni Mubarak ended three decades in power when he stepped downlast month.
"This is the first time we do not know what will be the result of an election," said Mohammed Gamaa, a 20-year old law student queuing in the courtyard of a school in Imbaba, a working-class Cairo neighbourhood.
For weeks, in the aftermath of the protests that led to Mr Mubarak's resignation, Egyptians have debated proposed constitutional changes on TV talk shows, in the streets, at the hairdressers and in cafes.
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of young women met to study the amendments in a posh coffee shop in the Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. Law books lay on the table, between tea cups and cookies. The referendum has divided Egyptians and the once united political forces who crowded Tahrir square, the symbolic centre of the protests.
The secular and liberal youth movements battled to convince the public to vote "no" and refuse the amendments. They argued that Egypt needs a completely new constitution.
"The aim of our revolution was to oust Mubarak and his regime, including its ideology and its constitution," said Bassem Kamel, 40, a representative of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, an umbrella movement of several political groups close to Mohammed ElBaradei, who helped galvanise the opposition to Mr Mubarak.
"If we accept the amendments, we accept to go back to the old system," said Mr Kamod.
"I'll vote yes," said Ahmad Samir, 31, who was in line to cast his ballot at the Kasr al Dubara primary school, in central Cairo.
"Voting yes is the first step to reorganising the country," said Mr Samir. "Now we need stability. Next, we are going to change the entire constitution."
If the amendments are accepted by the voters, Egyptians will go to the polls again in June for parliamentary elections.
The liberal youth movements have said two months are not enough to create a new political climate and fear the only groups that would benefit from such a short transitional period are the ones representing the old political order: the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"They vote 'yes' because they are the only ones ready to go to elections," said Mr Kamel.
"We do not even have a party. How can we be prepared for a national vote in a few months?" he said.
Dalia Nigati, 22, voted yesterday for the first time. "I wrote no on the ballot because I want to see the beginning of a new democratic life," she said showing her ink-stained finger in a classroom of the Kasr al Dubara school.
Ziad El Elaimy, one of the leaders of youth groups, was concerned yesterday over reports of possible illegalities at some polling centres, even though non-governmental organisations, judges and public servants were monitoring the polls. There were rumours that old regime members were paying off voters and that the indelible ink was not so indelible after all, but the accusations didn't appear to be widespread.
"If we do not win, we will get ready for elections," said Mr El Elaimy. "We believe in democracy."
"Today is a great day, I am happy. Look at all these people queuing orderly to cast their ballot," said a smiling George Ishaq, former leader of the Kifaya movement, an activist group for change.