CAIRO Egyptians voting on Thursday said they felt empowered by the first free election after Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, a vote likely to give Islamists the upper hand in a parliament that will help shape Egypt's new constitution.
The army, which took over after Mubarak was ousted, remains in charge until a presidential election in mid-2012, but parliament will have a popular mandate that the military will find difficult to ignore as it oversees the transition.
Islamist-led party lists secured about two-thirds of votes in the first round of the election. However, the Islamists are a broad and divided camp, which analysts say gives liberals a chance to make their voices heard in the new assembly.
The leading group, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said it expected to hold onto its lead in the second round but that it was not clear if its share of the vote would stay around the 40 percent mark.
Many Egyptians were enjoying the novelty of taking part in a vote that, unlike in Mubarak's era, they did not expect to be rigged.
"I'm 61 years old and I've never voted before. I came here today as I couldn't vote yesterday because of the crowds," said Azza Mohamed at a busy Cairo polling station.
"Everyone who votes today knows their vote won't be lost," she said, on the second day of the second round of a complicated multi-phase election that will last into January.
Before Egyptians rose up in January to topple Mubarak 18 days later, the president's National Democratic Party (NDP) swept to assured victories in elections littered with abuses.
"I can choose the person that I want to represent me. The NDP used to control the country. Now our views will steer the parliament," said 24-year-old Nesma Medhat, another Cairo voter.
Parliament's prime job will be appointing a 100-strong assembly to write a constitution defining the powers of the president, parliament and perhaps the army in the new Egypt.
The ruling army council raised suspicions it wanted to hang on to power, even after a new president was elected, when its cabinet proposed inserting articles in the new constitution that would have shielded it from civilian scrutiny.
That sparked more than a week of violent protests in Cairo and elsewhere in November in which 42 people were killed.
Candidates seeking to run in the presidential election will need the support of 30 members of parliament or 30,000 citizens, according to a draft law reported by state news agency MENA.
The draft also allows any party with at least one elected seat in parliament to field a candidate, MENA said.
The new regulations, referred to the army's newly appointed consultative council, will replace Mubarak-era regulations that effectively ruled out any realistic challenge to his rule.
ON GUARD FOR ABUSES
As in the first round, Thursday's voting was mainly peaceful, but independent monitoring groups reported infractions
such as campaigning at polling stations. The army, which is guarding polling stations, promised to confront such practices.
The election committee has pledged to combat abuses but says these were not widespread enough to discredit the result.
Official results are expected on Saturday or Sunday, but parties are likely to estimate their performance before that.
In front was a list led by the Brotherhood's FJP, with about 37 percent of the vote. One led by the hardline Islamist Salafi al-Nour party was the surprise runner-up with 24 percent. Liberal lists led by the Egyptian Bloc and the Wafd Party together secured about 20 percent.
"It is hard to determine exactly how the FJP did before the tallying begins but we are certain given voting today that the party is still in the lead, the question is whether it will stay at 40 percent," Mohamed al-Katatni, a senior member of the FJP, told Reuters shortly before polls closed on Thursday.
The liberal camp has sought to revitalize its campaign, but Karin Maree of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit said she expected no big change in the overall trend even though first-round results would influence second-round voters.
She said Nour could lose a little ground and the Egyptian Bloc's "share of seats is likely to grow slightly as voters seek to limit the influence of Islamist parties."
While Brotherhood and Nour leaders may look on their rivals cautiously, some of their grassroots supporters say they have much in common and should push together for Islamic rule.
Brotherhood leaders are wary of a wholly Islamist ruling coalition, which other Egyptians, including the 10 percent Christian minority, might view as divisive.
But many rural voters disregard such subtleties, looking forward to what they see as a long-overdue experiment with Islamic government that embraces all like-minded parties.
"Of course the Islamists should be working as allies, because the Brothers and the Salafis are the same," said Ahmed Sayed, a supporter of the Brotherhood's FJP.
"We've never tried the Islamists in government before, so now it's their turn. God's law must come first," added his companion, hotel receptionist Mahmoud Zakaria, speaking in the town of Kafr Jumaa, about 120 km (80 miles) south of Cairo.
Regions voting in the second round include Giza, a part of Cairo; the eastern cities of Ismailiya and Suez; Aswan and Sohag to the south; and Nile Delta regions in the north.
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Reuters Television; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)