Egyptians have turned out in large crowds at polling stations to vote in a referendum on amendments made to the constitution following the February ouster of authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Arab League chief Amr Musa, an Egyptian, hailed the large turnout as he cast his vote, saying, "Whether the Egyptian people say yes or no, that's alright...what is important is that people are coming."
The referendum is Egypt's first taste of democracy following the ouster of Mubarak on February 11 in a popular uprising after three decades in power.
The proposed amendments limit the amount of time a president can stay in office to two four-year terms. They also oblige the president to appoint a deputy within a month after being elected.
Turnout was reportedly high after polls opened at 8 a.m. local time.
AlHurra correspondent in Cairo, Tarek El-Shamby, told RFE/RL that voters seemed to be "happy and exited" despite having to wait in long lines to cast their votes.
"Maybe they are suffering because there are long lines to get to the ballot box, but after all they are happy because for the first time they feel that there is transparency and that their vote will make a difference," he said.
Ali Gheita, a young doctor who cast his ballot in Cairo, said: "It feels really good. To experience democracy for the first time and to feel that your vote really counts is an experience that no one should live without?"
In one incident, a crowd attacked Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei as he tried to cast his vote at a polling station in Cairo.
The amendments are designed to pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections. The elections will enable the military, which has been ruling the country since Mubarak's ouster, to hand over power to an elected civilian government.
Currently, the military is planning parliamentary elections in September, with a presidential vote to follow afterward.
The military has urged the country's 45 million eligible voters to take part in the referendum, saying the amendments are the best way forward.Critics: Amendments Don't Go Far Enough
Egypt's two key political groups, the National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood, support the amendments.
But opponents of the proposed package say it does not comprise real change that would abolish the country's autocratic system of government. They have urged voters to reject the package.
Critics of the proposals include two prominent Egyptian political figures, ElBaradei and the Arab League's Musa.
ElBaradei said the proposed package "doesn't talk about the imperial power of the president, it doesn't talk about the distortion of the parliament, it doesn't talk about the need to have an independent constituent assembly that represents everybody."
If voters reject the amendments, the military would have to extend its rule and set up a new judicial commission to rewrite the constitution.
Such a scenario would also push back the parliamentary elections.
Any Egyptian over 18 years old who has a national identity card is eligible to vote.
The European Parliament said 14 of its members would be visiting Egypt to monitor the referendum.
Polls will close at 7 p.m. local time, and the results are expected on late on March 20 or early on March 21.with agency reports