CAIRO Egypt's ultra-conservative Islamist Salafis said they will not water down their views to ally with the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, after a first-round vote put the two rival groups on track to dominate parliament.
The army is in charge for now but the election, the first since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, will give the new parliament a strong claim to a role in how Egypt is governed.
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organized political force, which was banned but partly tolerated under Mubarak, is on course to win the election. The Salafis, who follow an even stricter interpretation of Islam, have emerged from the margins to push liberals into third place.
Analysts say the Brotherhood has a pragmatic streak that makes it an unlikely ally for Salafis who only recently ventured from preaching into politics and whose strict ideology offers little scope for compromise.
Salafi al-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 in an interview. "They always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision... There might be a consensus but ... we will remain independent."
The Brotherhood has won a broad popular following through decades of grass-roots charity work. Its goal for now may be to project a moderate image to prove it can govern, a purpose perhaps best served by cooperation with more mainstream parties.
"We don't rule out that they may marginalise us and portray us as the troublemaking bloc," Ghaffour, who wore a beard, suit and open-necked shirt, said at the party's headquarters in Cairo's wealthy suburb of Maadi.
"The experiences of other parties who have allied with them in the past are bitter. They always speak of it with reproach."
A count from the first round of the staggered vote gave al-Nour's list 24.4 percent of the vote, behind the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which had 36.6 percent.
Before the vote, Al-Nour abandoned an electoral alliance led by the FJP that would have seen them cooperate on party lists. The Salafis said they wanted more of their candidates included.
FJP deputy Essam el-Erian told Reuters before the vote that a tie-up with the Salafis would burden any political coalition.
The rise of the Salafis has alarmed many secularists, as well as Egypt's large Christian minority.
Salafis seek to practice Islam in the manner of the Prophet Mohammad's earliest followers and advocate the gradual application of sharia as they interpret it. The movement was revived in Egypt in the 1970s by a group of Alexandria University students.
The group wants to ban bank interest, exclude women and non-Muslims from executive positions, segregate the sexes at work and revise Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
Abdel Ghaffour said a Salafi government would boost cultural tourism and try to diversify the economies of Egyptian cities that are heavily reliant on income from paying visitors.
But a Salafi pledge to outlaw alcohol, public displays of affection and the wearing of bikinis on beaches would deepen a tourism crisis sparked by the uprising against Mubarak.
The Brotherhood, mindful of the economic fallout of scaring away Western tourists, has adopted a more moderate discourse.
A first-round run-off on Monday will pit 24 al-Nour members against Brotherhood candidates. Al-Nour is aiming for 20 percent of seats in parliament and might get more if they repeat their strong showing in second and third rounds due to end on January 11.
"Now that we are the second-biggest party, we will have a voice and presidential candidates will be approaching us knowing that we possess a strong voting bloc," Abdel Ghaffour said.
Parliament is due to elect a constituent assembly that will oversee the drafting of a new constitution. The document is already a battleground for liberals and Islamists divided over what role Islam should play in Egypt's future.
While spurning a parliamentary alliance with the Brotherhood, Abdel Ghaffour said al-Nour was ready to join a coalition cabinet that furthers its goal of "gradual" reform.
"No single party can impose its will on 80 million Egyptians," he said.
He said al-Nour would not accept a "secular" state and would try to strengthen sharia as the main source of legislation.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Peter Graff)