BEIRUT

Middle East

Egyptians set to give Islamists biggest bloc in vote

Army soldiers stand guard as people stand in line to vote outside a polling station on the second day of parliamentary elections at the village of Kafr el-Moseilha, the hometown former president Hosni Mubarak, in the Nile delta province of Menoufia 80 km (50 miles) north of Cairo December 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

CAIRO: Egyptians return to polling stations on Thursday in a phased election likely to give Islamists the biggest bloc in a parliament that will play a key role in drafting a new constitution after decades of autocratic rule .

The vote being staged over six weeks is Egypt's first free polls after a series of rigged elections under Hosni Mubarak, who after almost 30 years in power was driven from office by a popular uprising in February.

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.

The ruling army council fuelled 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.

Parliament's prime job will be appointing a 100-strong assembly to write a new constitution which will define the president's powers and parliament's clout in the new Egypt.

For ordinary Egyptians, the novelty is voting in an election where the outcome is not a foregone conclusion before even one vote is cast. Under Mubarak, his National Democratic Party (NDP) swept to routine victories in votes littered with abuses.

"It is the first time for me to know what an election is ... 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, who was voting in a district of Cairo for the liberal Egyptian Bloc alliance.

Independent monitoring groups reported violations to voting rules, just as in the first round, including campaigning outside the polling stations. The army, which has sent troops to guard polling stations, said it would confront such practices.

An election committee has pledged to clamp down on abuses but says irregularities were not widespread enough to discredit the result. Official results are not expected until Saturday or Sunday but parties will give an indication of their performance before that since they have representatives watching the count.

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 biggest single bloc went to the alliance led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party that won about 37 percent of the vote, with the hardline Salafi al-Nour Party listing coming a surprise second with 24 percent.

The liberal Egyptian Bloc and another liberal party, Wafd, together secured about 20 percent of votes for their lists.

The liberal camp has sought to revitalise its campaigning to draw out more support, although analysts do not expect any major changes to the overall trend in voting in the second round when once again turnout appeared to be high.

Long queues extended outside polling stations on Wednesday, the first day of the two days given to voting in each round.

"Voters casting their ballots in the second round will have been influenced by the results of voting in the first round of the election, but the order established in the first round will not change," said Karin Maree, analyst for Egypt at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

But she said the Salafi al-Nour could lose a little ground and Egyptian Bloc's "share of seats is likely to grow slightly as voters seek to limit the influence of Islamist parties".

In the Minufiya district north of Cairo in the Nile Delta, one area where voting is taking place in this round, 32-year-old Zeinab Youssef said she was backing the Brotherhood's party.

"I'm voting for an old, established party that will know how to write a constitution. The Brotherhood suffered a lot of injustice," she said, referring to the decades when the Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak.

Voting for each stage is held on two days. This time voting was 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.

 

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