CAIRO - The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood looks set for a dominant role in Egypt's first free parliament in decades and is promising rivals a role in writing a new constitution as military generals face growing pressure to hand power to civilians. Egyptians voted for a second day on Wednesday in the final stage of the lower-house election, the first free legislative vote since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
The staggered election is part of the military's plan to hand power to civilians before July, ending its turbulent interregnum that began with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February last year in a popular uprising.
Welcomed then as heroes who helped nudge the autocratic leader from office, the generals now face anger over their handling of protests that have left 59 dead since mid-November and an economic crisis that is worsening the plight of the poor.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood has surfed a wave of hostility to long-time foe Mubarak. For millions of poor Egyptians, its record of charitable work in areas ignored by his government suggests it would care for their needs if it won power.
In the working class suburb of Shubra al-Khaima on the northern limits of Cairo, citizens queued to vote in pot-holed streets littered with rubbish.
"I've voted for the Muslim Brotherhood. They have experience in running politics and I am convinced they will start implementing serious reforms," said pensioner Fawzi Mohamed.
Its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) leads after two of the three rounds of voting and the rise of Islamist parties in the poll has prompted Western concern for the future of Egypt's close ties to Washington and peace with Israel.
Raids last week on non-governmental organizations by police in a judicial probe into foreign funding for political parties have incensed rights activists and drawn a rebuke from Egypt's long-time ally the United States.
The more hardline Islamist al-Nour Party has come second in the voting so far but some analysts believe the Brotherhood may seek to build a coalition with liberal groups. That could ease concerns at home and in the West about the rise of the Islamists in a country whose economy is propped up by tourism.
"The party's winning of the majority in the new parliament does not mean going it alone in writing the constitution wit
hout consideration for the rights of other Egyptians, or ignoring the political forces which did not get a majority or failed in the parliamentary elections," said FJP head Mohamed Mursi.
Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood is Egypt's best organized political force, emerging stronger than others from three decades of Mubarak rule.
With so much to gain from its return to mainstream politics, the Brotherhood has insisted that the elections proceed as planned and has shunned recent street protests against the army.
JOBS AND HOMES
In Shubra al-Khaima, where many voters are illiterate laborers and factory workers, poll officials said many citizens had turned up just to avoid paying a fine for not voting.
However, turnout on Tuesday and Wednesday seemed lower than in the first rounds, some poll organizers said, with many voters apparently feeling the result was already decided.
Rania, a 37-year-old housewife, said she had voted for the FJP because they will create more jobs for the young and provide apartments.
"Don't get confused and mark down the wrong candidate," she told her elderly mother as they stood in the queue.
Throughout the staggered election, agents for several parties have hustled for votes outside polling stations, flouting a ban on election-day campaigning.
"In many districts our members saw people affiliated to al-Nour and FJP telling voters to vote for them, which the election law totally prohibits," said Ahmed Said of the liberal Free Egyptians party.
An official from the liberal Egyptian Bloc, which includes the Free Egyptians, said the electoral alliance should get 15 percent of votes in the third stage, slightly above earlier rounds. Another source in the alliance said it would be lower.
Preliminary third-round results are due to be given on Saturday, the High Elections Committee said.
The lower house election concludes with a run-off vote on January 10 and 11, with final results expected on January 13. The new parliament will then pick a 100-member assembly to write a new constitution.
Voting for the upper house will be held in January and February. (Reuters)