CAIRO — Egyptians turned out in large numbers Wednesday to vote in the second round of parliamentary elections that have become a stiff competition between dominant Islamist parties likely to steer the country in a more religious direction.
Two Islamist blocs won an overwhelming majority, close to 70 percent of seats contested, in the first round of voting on Nov. 28-29, according to an AP tally compiled from official results. The secular and liberal forces that largely drove Egypt's uprising failed to turn their achievement into a victory at the polls and were trounced.
The final two rounds of voting are not expected to dramatically alter the result and could even strengthen the Islamists' hand.
"We have to try Islamic rule to be able to decide if it's good for us," said 60-year-old voter Hussein Khattab an accountant waiting to vote at a polling station near iconic pyramids in Giza province on the western outskirts of Cairo. "If not, we can go back to Tahrir," he said, referring to the Cairo square that was the focus of the uprising in January and February.
He said he planned to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most organized and well-known party which was the big winner of the first round with about 47 percent of contested seats.
"I want to have a constitution that will satisfy everyone," he said. "This must achieve democracy, social justice and equality above all else."
The election is the first since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster and is the freest and fairest in Egypt's modern history. In the first round of voting, many Egyptians were just ecstatic at the prospect of being able to participate in a real democratic election where their votes would actually count after decades of fraud and vote-rigging by Mubarak's former ruling party.
But the Islamists' surprisingly strong showing brought a new set of anxieties for some in a country already embroiled in chaos with a sharp deterioration in both security and the economy in the 10 months since the uprising. The two dominant Islamist Parties — the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice and the even more conservative Al-Nour bloc — together took about 68 percent of the seats up for grabs in the first round.
The Brotherhood faces its stiffest competition from Al-Nour, the party of Salafi Muslims whose ultraconservative interpretation of Islam is similar to that practiced in Saudi Arabia. Al-Nour bloc won an unexpectedly strong 21 percent of seats in the first round.
While both Islamist, the two parties say they will pursue different priorities and it is unclear how closely they will work together in parliament.
The Brotherhood is sending mixed messages in terms of how strongly it will push to limit personal freedom's such as women's dress. Some have tried to assure the public they do not intend to strictly impose Islamic law, or Shariah. However other Brotherhood leaders have indicated a more hard-line direction, for example by suggesting tourists don't need to drink alcohol.
The Salafis state openly that they will push for Islamic law to be strictly enforced, and some have railed against tourists who wear bikinis at beach resorts popular with foreigners. At a recent campaign rally in the coastal city of Alexandria, Salafis covered a mermaids on a statue with cloth.
The Brotherhood also benefited from a highly organized campaign, a large network of activists across the nation, many of whom broke election rules during the first round by actively campaigning outside polling stations on voting days.
Still, religiously based parties appealed to many voters who believe they'll run a clean government. Public anger over rampant corruption under Mubarak was a major impetus behind the uprising. The Islamist groups are also known to many for providing social services, especially to the poor, something that Mubarak's regime failed to offer.
"Islamists are people who know God well and whatever their program or agenda, they will surely do the right thing," said Giza voter Mohammed Rida, a retired company manager.
Some worry that the competition between Islamist parties will lead to too much focus on religious issues at the expense of more pressing . Some analysts say the Salafis will pull the Muslim Brotherhood in a more conservative direction by forcing discussions of Islamic law.
Many polling stations drew lines with hundreds of people early Wednesday. Voters marked paper ballots and dipped their fingers in purple ink to prevent double voting.
Some of those worried about the growing clout of Islamists turned out to support the liberals.
"I was worried about all their statements about sex segregation, tourism and beaches," said Giza voter Omniya Fikry, referring to statements by some Islamist politicians that they will seek to ban alcohol and skimpy beachwear. Continued unrest since Mubarak's ouster has harmed tourism, a critical income generator, and some analysts are now warning the economy is near collapse.
"Tourism has already been battered and their statements are making it worse," Fikry said.
Liberal parties performed poorly in the first round, with the liberal Egyptian Bloc coming in a distant third with nine percent.
For round two, liberals have vowed to beef up their presence near voting stations to ensure that Islamist parties are not violating the legal ban on campaigning on election days.
The election commission has said that this time it will monitor polling stations for violations.
Final results for 150 seats from the first round have been announced. The second round, which ends Tuesday, will decide 180 seats in the 498-seat People's Assembly, the parliament's lower house.
The second round runs for two days through Thursday. The final stage is Jan. 3-4. Rounds are divided up by province, with nine of the 27 provinces voting in each round.
It remains unclear what powers the new parliament, expected to be seated in March, will have.
In theory, it is supposed to form a 100-member assembly to write a new constitution. But the military council that has ruled since Mubarak's fall says the parliament will not be representative of all of Egypt, and should not have sole power over the drafting of the constitution. Last week, the military appointed a 30-member council to oversee the process.
The Muslim Brotherhood has refused to participate in the council and is pushing for a stronger role for parliament.
Since taking power, the military has sought to protect and expand its special place in the Egyptian state, saying at one point that it would choose four-fifths of the members of the constitutional committee. It is also trying to protect its budget from oversight by a civilian body.
Nearly 19 million of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters can participate in the second round.