CAIRO Egyptians will hear results of their first free election in six decades on Thursday, with the Muslim Brotherhood expecting to pick up two-fifths of the vote for an assembly that might limit the power of the generals.
The Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-organized Islamist group, hopes its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) will secure a solid platform in parliament, saying it hopes to form a coalition government once polls are over in January.
The ruling military council, under increasing pressure to make way for civilian rule, has said it will retain powers to choose or dismiss a cabinet. But the FJP leader said on Tuesday the majority in parliament should form the government.
The last government resigned during protests against army rule last month in which 42 people were killed, mainly around Cairo's Tahrir Square, the centre of the revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.
Kamal al-Ganzouri, asked by the army to form a "national salvation government," aims to complete the task in the next day or two, but acknowledged on Wednesday that five presidential candidates had turned down invitations to join his cabinet.
Protesters who returned to Tahrir last month, angered by the military's apparent reluctance to cede power, say the generals should step aside now, instead of appointing a man of the past like Ganzouri, 78, who was a premier for Mubarak in the 1990s.
"We want the military council to leave," said Heidi Essam, a 21-year-old law student. "We're not leaving Tahrir even if we have to stay for months until we get a transitional government."
Officials plan to announce on Thursday the outcome of contests for individual seats in the first stage of an election staggered over six weeks, but not those of the two-thirds of seats allocated to party lists which will be made public in January.
In contrast to the intimidation and gross electoral abuses that were rife during Mubarak's 30-year rule, voting on Monday and Tuesday unfolded peacefully with only minor violations.
Yasser Abdel Moneim, 47, an English teacher who voted for the Brotherhood's FJP, said the difference was striking. "Before there was thuggery and people were passive. People used to ask, 'why should I go vote? It's rigged anyway'," he said.
The FJP faces new competition from ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists in al-Nour Party and others, as well as from the liberal Egyptian Bloc alliance and a host of smaller parties.
"The clear winner thus far is the Egyptian people, who have spoken decisively about their desire to complete their transition to democracy," said Sergio Bitar, co-leader of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute delegation monitoring the poll.
Western powers are coming to accept that the advent of democracy in the Arab world may bring Islamists to power, with moderate Islamist parties already topping recent polls in Morocco and Tunisia. But they also worry that Islamist rule in Egypt might threaten Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Some Egyptians fear the Muslim Brotherhood might try to impose Islamic curbs on a tourism-dependent country whose 80 million people include a 10 percent Coptic Christian minority.
Ali Khafagi, the leader of the FJP's youth committee, dismissed such concerns, saying the Brotherhood's goal was to end corruption and start reform and economic development.
Only a "mad group" would try to ban alcohol or force women to wear headscarves," 28-year-old Ali Khafagi told Reuters.
Any new government will have to grapple with an economic crisis that has already forced the Egyptian pound to its lowest level in nearly seven years after tourism and foreign investment collapsed in the turmoil since Mubarak's fall on February 11.
"The effects of a ballooning deficit are not felt on the street straight away," said a financial analyst, who asked not to be named, adding that austerity measures were inevitable.
"These are seldom received positively by the public as they involve tax increases, spending cuts or both."