Egyptians voted on Monday in run-off contests for parliamentary seats, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s party trying to extend its lead over hardline Islamists and liberal parties in a political landscape redrawn by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is set to take the most seats in Egypt’s first free election in six decades, bolstering its hand in any struggle with the ruling army council for influence over the most populous Arab nation.
The Brotherhood, banned from politics until an uprising ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule on February 11, said after the first-round vote that everyone should “accept the will of the people”.
Its stiffest competition has come from the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour Party. Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, was expected to see some of the tightest races between the two parties in the run-off votes for individual candidates.
“The Brotherhood will win, we know them. The Salafis are new to us and we don’t know what they will do,” said Walid Mohamed, 30, a quality controller at a drugs factory in Alexandria.
“The competition won’t weaken either of them. The most important thing is that the winners rule us by Islam,” he added.
The phased election that runs until January is part of a promised transition from military to civilian rule in July after a presidential election in June.
The appeal of Islamist parties derives partly from perceptions that they are less corrupt due to their religious principles, and partly because those principles strike a deep chord in a conservative, poorly educated society.
A Pew Global Attitudes Project report released a year ago found that about four-fifths of Egyptians favoured Islamic punishments such as stoning for adultery, whippings and cutting off of hands for theft, and death for those who leave Islam.
In Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal, some voters seemed to be rethinking after last week’s Islamist gains.
“I came to vote for the independent candidate. I reject the Salafis because they did nothing for Port Said. I’m worried about Islamists controlling Port Said’s seats after they won the voting for lists,” said Medhat al-Sayyed, 43.
A housewife named Amani Ibrahim, 47, said she had voted for Islamists in the first round “but as a result of the violations I saw from Islamist candidates, particularly using mosques for campaigning, I’ll vote for the independent candidate today”.
FJP campaign workers drove around Alexandria in mini-buses canvassing for votes. They and their Salafi counterparts handed out flyers for their candidates, in violation of election rules.
But when Nour campaigners began distributing flyers at one Alexandria polling station, an army officer told them to leave. At other polling stations, Islamist campaign workers with laptops offered assistance to voters, as in last week’s polls.
In Cairo, Jihan Moussa, 39, a veiled pharmacist, said she had voted for the Egyptian Bloc which she described as centrist. “I am against any party based on religion,” she added.
The rise of Salafis has alarmed many Egyptians, including a 10 percent Christian minority, because of their view that strict sharia (Islamic law) should govern all aspects of society.
The pragmatic Brotherhood is wary of allying with Salafis, who only recently ventured from preaching into politics.
“The Salafis are abiding by sharia … while the Brotherhood play politics,” said Amin Ibrahim, 38, a print worker voting in Alexandria, regarded as a stronghold of Islamists.
Nour Party leader Emad Abdel Ghaffour made it clear he would not play second fiddle to the Brotherhood.
“We hate being followers,” Ghaffour told Reuters. “There might be a consensus but … we will remain independent.”
Voting was slow in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, in contrast to the crowds at polling stations last week, when officials put turnout at 62 percent.
The election committee listed first-round shortcomings such as polling stations opening late, ballots arriving late and campaigning at polling stations, but said these would not recur.
Under a complex system, two-thirds of the 498 elected lower house seats go proportionately to party lists, with the rest going to individual candidates, who must win more than 50 percent of votes in the first round to avoid a run-off.
Only four seats were won outright in the first round, leaving 52 to be decided in run-off voting on Monday and Tuesday, 24 of them contested between the FJP and Nour.
The Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organised political group and popular with the poor for its decades of charity work, wants to shape a new constitution to be drawn up next year.
That could be the focus of a power struggle with the army council, which wants to keep a strong presidential system, rather than the parliamentary one favoured by the Brotherhood.
Election committee figures from last week’s polls show an FJP-led list securing 36.6 percent of votes, Nour’s Salafi list 24.4 percent and the Egyptian Bloc 13.4 percent.
The result has unnerved Israel, concerned about the fate of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
“We hope any future government in Egypt will recognise the importance of keeping the peace treaty with Israel in its own right and as a basis for regional security and economic stability,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.
The future of the peace deal between Egypt and Israel is a concern for its sponsor, the United States, which has backed it with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.