CAIRO -- They waited in long lines for hours to vote, despite a new wave of unrest, fears about a sharply divided society and uncertainty over the nation's future.
For the millions who cast ballots yesterday, Egypt's first parliamentary elections since they ousted Hosni Mubarak were a turning point, if for no other reason than they were finally getting a chance to be heard after decades of rigged voting.
The outcome will indicate whether one of America's most important Middle East allies will remain secular or move down a more Islamic path, as have other countries swept up in the Arab Spring.
"I have hope this time," said Amal Fathy, 50, a government employee who wears the Islamic veil, as she patiently waited to vote. "I may not live long enough to see change, but my grandchildren will."
Egyptians had looked forward to this day as a celebration of freedom after years of stifling dictatorship. But there has been deep disappointment with the military rulers who replaced the old regime and a new wave of protests began 10 days before the vote.
Adding to the disarray, the multiple-stage election process, stretching over months, is extremely complicated. Some key players complained they did not have the time or the right conditions to organize for the vote.
If there was little jubilation, there was hope, and even defiance, with many determined to either push the military from power or vote against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups expected to dominate the balloting.
"This was simply overwhelming. My heart was beating so fast," Sanaa el-Hawary, 38, a mother of one said after she cast her vote in Cairo. "This is my life, it's my baby's life. It's my country and this is the only hope we have now."
Female voters appeared to outnumber the men by far, shattering widespread notions in a society whose women are dismissed or taken lightly. Women waiting for five hours at one polling center chanted: "We will not give up, we will not give up."
In Cairo's crowded Shoubra district, Toka Youssef, 34, explained why she was voting for the first time in her life.
"Before, there were no real elections. It was all theater. Now I'm optimistic in the future. These are the first steps toward democracy," she said.