CAIRO // Eager for their first taste of a free vote in decades, Egyptians formed long lines outside polling centers on Saturday to cast their ballots on a package of constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling military.
The nationwide referendum is the first major test of the country's transition to democracy after a popular uprising overthrew President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule on Feb. 11. Lines began forming in the hours before polls opened, snaking along the streets in highly unusual early turnout for an Egyptian election.
"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 being asked to cast ballots to say 'yes' or 'no' to the entire package of nine changes.
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 "no" vote could force the military to extend the six-month deadline it has set for the handover of power to an elected civilian government.
"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 polling center in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district.
The center was guarded by six police officers and one from the army.
State television showed footage of similarly long lines in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, and elsewhere in the country.
About half of Egypt's 80 million people are eligible voters and the military, in a bid to get the vote out, has decreed that they would be allowed to cast their 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.
Egyptian elections have for decades been defined by widespread fraud designed to ensure victory for the regime.
Lack of faith in the process, along with violence and intimidation, have kept most voters away. But the trust in the system appears to have come back.
"I am very excited to be doing this," Alaa al-Sharqawy, an engineering lecturer, said as he was about to cast his vote in Cairo. "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 the military suspended after coming to power - to ensure that upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are free and fair.
They would open the elections to independent and opposition candidates and 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 curtail 30-year-old emergency laws that give police near-unlimited powers.
Critics have used social networks 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.
Egypt has been ruled by men of military backgrounds since 1952 and the current constitution outlines a system that puts overwhelming power in the hands of the president.
The critics also say elections this year will overwhelm the dozens of new political parties born out of the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising and give unfair advantage to Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two largest and best organized political forces in the country.
Leading the "no" campaign are two likely presidential candidates - Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, the current secretary general of the Arab League and former foreign minister.
ElBaradei told a conference in New Delhi on Friday that Egyptians should vote against the constitutional amendments, saying that after decades of repression the newly formed political parties in Egypt should be given time to prepare for future parliamentary elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood is strongly campaigning for the adoption of the changes, a position that has set it apart from almost all other political groups in the country. The Brotherhood advocates the installment of an Islamic government in Egypt and the ambivalence of its position on the role of women and minority Christians worry large segments of society.
Fearing a growing political role, if not outright domination, by the Brotherhood, the overwhelming majority of Egypt's Christians were expected to vote "no" on Saturday. Comprising 10 percent of the population, the Christians complain of institutional discrimination and have recently stepped up their campaign for equal rights. They fear that their quest for equal rights would suffer a serious setback if the Brotherhood gains influence in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Advocates of the amendments say that rejecting them will prolong the rule of the generals who took over from Mubarak when he stepped down in the face of the 18-day popular uprising.
The military is thought to be eager for a "yes" vote so it can meet its own six-month deadline for transferring power back to an elected government. But the "no" proponents dispute the deadline as unrealistic and argue that drafting a new constitution to govern new elections would take less time and offer the country the stability it needs.