Islamists pursue gains in Egypt's phased election

CAIRO Wed Dec 14, 2011 6:18pm EST

Army soldiers organise the crowd as women wait to vote at a polling booth during the second day of parliamentary elections in Suez, December 14, 2011.  REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Army soldiers organise the crowd as women wait to vote at a polling booth during the second day of parliamentary elections in Suez, December 14, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Rival Islamist groups sought more gains in the second round of Egypt's parliamentary election on Wednesday, with liberals also fighting for a voice in an army-led transition that began with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's first free election in six decades is unfolding in three stages until January. Even then, the generals who stepped in when an uprising toppled Mubarak in February will not hand power to civilians until after a presidential vote in mid-2012.

"This is the first time our vote counts," said Fatma Sayed, a government employee voting in Suez, recalling the rigged polls of the 30-year Mubarak era. "We want to retain our rights."

The pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, its hardline Salafi rivals and a moderate faction won about two thirds of party-list votes in the first round. But the Brotherhood has signaled it wants a broad coalition, not a narrow Islamist front, in an assembly whose main task is to choose a body to draft a new constitution.

The second-round turnout seemed high and polling stations were kept open for an extra two hours until 9 p.m. (1900 GMT)

As in the first round, voting was largely peaceful, but a gunfight between supporters of rival candidates closed a polling

station on Cairo's outskirts, a security source said. No one was killed. Seven people were detained.

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Army General Hamdi Badeen said the army would confront attempts by any party or candidate to violate election rules that include a ban on campaigning near voting stations.

"There will be legal procedures against anyone who tries to campaign outside polling stations by giving out pamphlets or setting up computer points outside," he said.

Some Islamist parties exploited lax supervision in some areas during the first-round vote, setting up information points at entrances to polling stations and offering to guide confused voters to the right ballot box.

Official results are not expected until Saturday or Sunday as results are collated from outlying areas. But, as in the first round, parties are likely to indicate their performance sooner because they have representatives watching the counting.

The military will still appoint the government, but the next parliament will have legislative powers. It will also pick a 100-strong assembly to write a constitution that will define Egypt's political framework after decades of autocratic rule.

The constitution is already the focus of a tussle between Egypt's newly assertive political class and the ruling generals, and may also prompt jockeying between Islamists and liberals.

The army-backed cabinet sparked violent protests that killed 42 people last month after it sought to insert articles to shield the military from any future civilian oversight.

That fuelled suspicions that the army wants to cling to power even after the presidential poll now expected in June.

IRREGULARITIES

The committee supervising the poll noted irregularities in the first round but said they were not serious enough to undermine the result and would be addressed in future rounds.

A party list led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) came top in the first round, with strict Salafi Islamists surprise runners-up. Liberals were pushed into third place and are trying to close ranks for a fightback.

"I think the major trend will continue (in the second round) with some minor changes. The FJP will be first, but I think the percentage will be reduced relative to the first round," said Hassan Abou Taleb, political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

He said some voters, concerned by the rise of Islamists who they fear could introduce religious strictures on society, might boost the liberal vote.

The Egyptian Bloc alliance, which includes liberal parties founded just months ago in the wake of Mubarak's downfall, and the decades-old liberal Wafd party together secured about 20 percent of the votes for party lists in the first round.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie has sought to reassure voters, saying his group wants to work in a broad coalition and does not want a showdown with the army.

Some analysts say the Brotherhood might prefer to find non-Islamist allies in parliament, rather than lining up with the main Salafi al-Nour Party, in a bid to build a position in mainstream politics and avoid alienating chunks of society.

Under Egypt's new electoral system, two thirds of parliament's 498 elected seats go to party lists and the rest go to individuals. The race is split into three phases, and each phase has a run-off vote for the individual seats.

Voting for each stage is held on two days. This time voting is on Wednesday and Thursday in parts of Cairo not covered last time round, Ismailiya and Suez to the east of the capital, Aswan and Sohag to the south, and Nile Delta regions in the north.

(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan, Dina Zayed, Sherine El Madany and Tom Pfeiffer; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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