CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood won a majority of run-off contests in the first round of a parliamentary election, the electoral commission said on Wednesday, to consolidate its position as the clear front-runner.
The results suggested that liberal voters swung behind the Brotherhood, which was banned under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, to prevent the ultra-conservative Salafis from building on a strong initial showing in the multi-tiered election.
The prospect of Islamists taking charge in the most populous Arab state has caused concern in its major Western ally, the United States, as well as in Israel, which is anxious to safeguard its historic peace deal with Egypt.
A ruling military council, which took charge when Mubarak was ousted in February, has said it will remain the ultimate authority in Egypt until a new president is elected in June.
But in a bid to ease criticism it is dominating the gradual transition to civilian rule, the army on Thursday handed some presidential powers to new Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, whose cabinet was sworn in on Thursday.
Ganzouri, a former premier under Mubarak, pledged to improve security and the economy after nine months of army rule affected by social unrest, sectarian violence and a deepening financial crisis.
The make-up of the new parliament will not be known until the election concludes in January. But it already looks clear that the Brotherhood will be the biggest single force.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 24 of 44 seats awarded in the run-offs, while its allies took another four. The count for eight more seats was halted pending legal challenges, but the FJP said it expected to win six of them.
By contrast, the Salafi al-Nour party won just four seats, while a second Salafi group won two seats. The remaining seats were mainly split between liberal groups and independents.
However, turnout fell sharply in the run-offs, with just 39 percent of the electorate voting compared with 52 percent in initial polling last month, indicating possible disillusionment over an early strong showing by Islamists.
The Brotherhood has emphasized a political reform agenda it shares with a broad range of groups that took part in the uprising at the start of the year and is sounding more open to compromise with liberal forces in parliament.
An FJP-led alliance won 37 percent of the vote in the initial phase of proportional representation balloting, when Egyptians had to select from myriad party lists. The Salafis surprised many by coming a strong second, with 24 percent.
But the Salafis seemed to suffer something of a backlash this week, with voters expressing concern over their radicalism.
Sayyeda Ibrahim, 52, a cook from Cairo, said she voted for a Salafi candidate in last week's first round but regretted her choice later when she saw him debate with a liberal candidate.
"That bearded fellow is too radical," she said.
Among the Salafis who lost out was Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent spokesman for the movement who was defeated by a Brotherhood-backed rival in the port city of Alexandria.
Shahat caused uproar among liberal Egyptians for suggesting democracy was "haram" (forbidden) and the country's ancient Pharaonic statues which draw millions of foreign tourists should be covered up or destroyed as they are idolatrous.
The liberal Egyptian Bloc, which came third in voting last week, said it would support a protest planned near the Pyramids of Giza by tourism workers worried about their livelihoods.
"More people were mobilized against the Salafis when they saw everything was getting gloomy and the media were saying they are going to drive us towards catastrophe," said Amr Hashem, political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Although the Brotherhood and Salafi al-Nour party share much of the same rhetoric, they are deeply divided, leaving liberals hopeful they might have more influence over a post-election government and the shape of a future constitution.
That optimism was boosted by victories for some high-profile liberal candidates this week.
"I feel like people are starting to worry after the results of the first round, even the poor voters," said Menna Adel, 24, who worked at the Arab League headquarters based in Cairo.
"I think they realized that voting for the Salafis was a mistake and they didn't want to repeat it."
Additional reporting by Maha Dahan, Dina Zayed, Tamim Elyan and Patrick Werr; Writing by Crispian Balmer