Polls opened across Egypt on Sunday for a parliamentary election expected to strengthen the ruling party's grip in the most populous Arab nation but overshadowed by a crackdown on the Islamist opposition.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0600D GMT) and are due to close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT), with around 41 million Egyptians eligible to vote. The first results are expected on Monday.
The government's main rival, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. is targeting 30 percent of the lower house where it won a fifth of seats in 2005 -- its best result -- but analysts say the government wants to squeeze its most vocal critic out of parliament before a presidential vote in 2011.
The election in which 508 seats are at stake, including 64 reserved for women, may offer a foretaste of how the government conducts the crucial presidential election.
President Hosni Mubarak, 82, in power since 1981, has not said if he would run again. After he had gall-bladder surgery in March, speculation grew that he might step down.
If he does so, many Egyptians see a likely successor in his 46-year-old son Gamal, the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) policy chief. Gamal's allies include business leaders seeking further economic liberalization, resisted by the NDP's statist old guard.
The NDP is fielding far more candidates than there are seats available in an effort to crowd out the Brotherhood.
Turnout in the country of 80 million people is likely to be low, with polls traditionally greeted with general apathy.
Egyptians headed to the polls Sunday in a legislative vote marred by violence and protests that is expected to see the ruling party emerge stronger at the expense of the harried Islamist opposition.
Violent clashes took place at several centers, with witnesses saying police fired tear gas at voters in the Nile Delta and in Qena, about 475 kilometers (300 miles) south of Cairo.
Egyptian monitors said election irregularities were rife and evident from the start of voting on Sunday.
"From the first moments of the election, there have been a raft of violations, including the use of force, that have threatened the voting process," the Egyptian Coalition for Monitoring Elections said in a statement.
A number of violent incidents occurred despite the increased security force deployment, including the killing of the son of an independent candidate in Cairo's Matariya district.
Relatives said Omar Sayyed Sayyed, 24, was stabbed to death on Saturday night while was putting up posters of his father. A security official said the murder was a result of a private dispute.
Security forces on high alert
Egyptian security forces were on the alert after activists clashed with police at the end of a campaign marred by violence and a crackdown on the opposition.
More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested while campaigning or in clashes with police in past weeks. Eleven of them were sentenced this week to two years in jail for handing out the group's leaflets and campaigning.
Egypt bans using religious slogans in campaigns, a hallmark of the Islamist group.
With the outcome of Sunday's vote in little doubt, the authorities may face a sterner challenge from a workforce frustrated with low pay and food inflation now at 22 percent. Several union protests have turned violent in recent years.
The NDP and the Brotherhood have swapped accusations of intimidation and violence, said to have included kidnappings and fights between rival groups using machetes, chains and knives.
The Islamist movement skirts a ban on religious parties by running candidates as independents and has carved out a broad grass-roots following by offering health and social services.
Despite its substantial presence, it had scant influence on legislation during parliament's last five-year term and has made no gains in municipal or upper house elections since 2005.
Brotherhood leaders say it would be perilous to push it out of mainstream politics as this would play into the hands of more radical Islamists bent on overthrowing the government by force.