By Yasmine Saleh and Dina Zayed
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians flocked to the polls on Saturday for the first time since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, eager to vote in a referendum on constitutional reform which will determine how quickly the country can hold elections.
Egyptians used to vote-rigging in Mubarak's era stood in long queues at polling stations to take part in the first ballot in living memory whose outcome was not known in advance. Observers said turnout appeared unprecedented.
"I'm 53 and I have never voted before because they were all rigged," said Ahmed al-Hami, one of close to 100 people standing in line to cast his ballot at a polling station in a suburb south of Cairo. "Now I am voting for freedom," he said.
Voters were being asked to vote yes or no to proposed reforms drafted by a judicial committee appointed by the country's military rulers, who have pledged to hold early elections. They took over power from Mubarak when he stepped down on February 11, forced from office by an uprising for freedom that continues to reverberate across the Arab world.
Egypt has been alive with debate over the referendum. The country is divided between those who say the constitution needs a complete rewrite and others who argue that the amendments will suffice for now and a new constitution can be written later.
"It is too early to tell what the voter turnout is, but it is clear that this is unprecedented," Ahmed Samih Farag, a human rights activist and monitor with the Egyptian Coalition for Election Monitoring, told Reuters, surveying queues of voters.
BROTHERHOOD, SECULARISTS AT ODDS
The Muslim Brotherhood, a well organized Islamist group, has come out in favor of the amendments, setting it at odds with secular groups and prominent reform advocates including former U.N. nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, both candidates for the presidency.
"I voted yes -- yes for stability and for things to go back to normal," said Mustafa Fouad, 24, an engineer voting in Cairo at a polling station.
"I voted no. This is not enough," said Atef Farouk, who arrived at the same polling station with his wife and three daughters. They waved an Egyptian flag as their parents voted.
"We want a new constitution," added Farouk, 41.
The polls opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and will go on until evening. The result is expected to be announced on Sunday evening or Monday morning, a member of a judicial committee involved in overseeing the election told Reuters.
Constitutional reform is a milestone on the path sketched by the military toward legislative and presidential elections that will allow it to hand power to a civilian, elected government.
The military, seen as eager to relinquish power as soon as possible, has indicated that parliamentary elections could happen as soon as September, to be followed by a presidential election.
Rejection of the amendments would upset their plans. A security source said that under such a scenario, the parliamentary election could be pushed back to December.
One of the reforms limits the time a president can stay in office to two four-year terms -- a dramatic departure from the system that allowed Mubarak to stay in office for 30 years.
Voters emerged from the polling stations bearing ink-stained fingers as proof they had cast their ballots. The voting paper presented them with the full list of amendments and the choices of "agree" or "don't agree."
"There is no doubt this referendum is a sea change from past elections in Egypt. Officials told us at least double the numbers are voting compared to past elections," said Richard Howitt, a member of the European Parliament observing the vote.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak but has moved ever more to the heart of public life since he was toppled, making the most of new freedom to organize and speak out. The group has said it will neither seek the presidency nor a parliamentary majority in the coming elections.
"This is freedom and democracy. Indeed, this is Islam," Mohamed Badie, the group's leader, told journalists after casting his vote. "The people are the source of sovereignty."
Secular groups are worried that what they see as a tight timetable for elections will play into the hands of the Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
Both have more political experience than other groups emerging from years of oppression under Mubarak.
"Everyone agrees on (the need for) a new constitution," said Mustafa Abdel Qader, a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer speaking at a polling station in Helwan, south of Cairo.
"I say yes now so that we know the way forward. If we vote no, the way ahead is not clear."
Soad Sobhy, 50, said: "I voted no. If things go fast and elections are held soon we will end up with either the Brotherhood or the National Democratic Party and I don't want any of them."
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad, Jonathan Wright, Shaimaa Fayed, Sarah Mikhail in Cairo; Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Trevelyan)