CAIRO (AP) _ 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.
Voters were being asked o cast ballots to say 'yes' or 'no' to the entire package of nine changes.
A ``yes'' vote would allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held this year. 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,''
Hossam Bishay, 48, said as he waited in line with about 300 other voters 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.
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.