Egyptians voted Wednesday in the country's first free presidential elections, with Islamists and secularists vying for power with competing visions of an Egypt liberated from ousted president Hosni Mubarak's iron grip.
After a slow start, cooler evening temperatures and the end of the working day prompted a surge in voters who formed queues outside polling stations across the country.
Polls did not start closing until 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) after authorities ordered a one-hour extension. A second day of polling was to be held on Thursday, with preliminary results expected on Sunday.
"It's a beautiful day for Egypt," said Nehmedo Abdel Hadi, who was voting at the Omar Makram school in Cairo's Shubra neighbourhood.
"Now I feel this is my country and I have dignity," said the 46-year-old woman, who wears a full-face veil.
More than 50 million eligible voters have been called to choose one of 12 candidates vying to succeed Mubarak. If none wins outright, the election will go to a runoff next month.
Washington, which supported the veteran strongman for decades before throwing its weight behind the protest movement that overthrew him in February last year, hailed a "very important milestone" in Egypt's transition to democracy.
"I don't know if you've seen the ballot. It's really quite stunning. It's about this long with many, many candidates," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
The election marks the final phase of a tumultuous transition overseen by the military.
Pollsters say the large number of voters undecided among candidates reflecting radically different trends, and the novelty of a free vote, make the election almost impossible to call.
In the port city of Suez, queuing voter Ahmed Kilani, a lawyer in his 50s, said the landmark election showed that Egypt was moving away from its authoritarian past.
"No matter who people vote for, this vote expresses a rejection of the old regime and shows Egyptians are ready for a new chapter," he said.
In Cairo, voter Dalia Gamal said: "If it wasn't for the revolution, we would be congratulating Gamal Mubarak on his electoral victory by now," in reference to the son of the former president, who was widely believed to have been groomed to succeed his father.
Leading contenders include former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who is seen as an experienced diplomat but like Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, once served under the veteran strongman.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Mursi faces competition from Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Islamist movement who portrays himself as a consensus choice.
Despite an official ban on campaigning during the voting, the candidates have continued giving interviews to shore up their support.
Shafiq told AFP that the country would face "huge problems" if an Islamist won and that he was the only one who could stop the fundamentalists from spreading their influence.
But the retired general is reviled by the activists who spearheaded the revolt last year. As he emerged from a polling station, he was pelted with shoes by protesters shouting "Down with felool", a pejorative term for remnants of the old regime.
The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.
Islamist candidates have promised an Islamic-based project that has prompted fears among secularists and Egypt's Coptic Christian minority over personal freedoms and raised questions about the future of the country's lucrative tourism industry.
"I don't want the Islamists. If they come to power and I oppose them, they will say I am criticising their religion and who knows what they'll do to me?" said 57-year-old Sanaa Rateb after casting her ballot.
Shafiq and Mussa have vowed to maintain stability and restore law and order, but their ties to the old regime sparked fears of renewed protests by those who will feel their revolution is under threat.
The election caps a roller-coaster transition, marked by political upheaval and bloodshed, but which also witnessed democratic parliamentary elections that saw Islamist groups score a crushing victory.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in power since Mubarak's ouster, has urged Egyptians to turn out en masse to the polls, while warning against any "violation."
The SCAF has vowed to hand over to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its withdrawal from politics will be just an illusion.
The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.
Mubarak, 84 and ailing, may watch the election from a military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo as he awaits the verdict of his murder trial on June 2.
The former strongman is accused of involvement in the killing of some 850 protesters during the uprising and of corruption.