Voters poured into polling stations Wednesday in the second round of landmark elections that will shape Egypt’s post-revolution future, with many backing Islamists who have already emerged as front-runners.
Some 18.8 million people were eligible to vote in the second round of the three-phase legislative polls, the first since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February after 30 years in power.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) clinched the most seats in the opening round, was eager to sustain the momentum.
“For a strong parliament, which meets the demands, the concerns and the priorities of the people, let’s continue,” the party said on its Facebook page.
Long queues formed outside polling stations in a third of Egypt’s provinces throughout the day, where voting began at 8:00 am (0600 GMT).
Polling stations closed at 9:00 PM after a two-hour extension. A second day of voting is scheduled on Thursday.
At the Mohammed Qureib school in the Giza working class Bahr al-Aatham neighbourhood, soldiers let voters through five or six at a time.
A policeman admonished voters not to campaign for candidates or talk about their preferences, but some were eager to explain why they were voting for the FJP.
“They have political experience and they are moderate,” said Abdel Halim, a government employee.
But others said the Brotherhood would damage tourism, with one saying “they’re going to ruin it and they’ll ban going to the beach.”
Abdel Halim scorned him: “You want to sit on the beach. We want to work for our country,” highlighting a source of tension between Islamists and secularists.
Alcohol, swimsuits and mixed bathing would be banned.
In the impoverished district of Imbaba, also in Giza, queuing voters said they were opting for Islamist parties.
“We tried the liberals and the secularists and they did nothing for us,” said one, Mohammed Rashad, referring to Mubarak’s ruling party. “The Islamists have God’s law.”
But Rashad, and other Islamist supporters outside the polling station, also cited worldly reasons to vote for Islamists.
“The Salafis were providing services to the poor before they even formed a party,” he said.
Scuffles broke out outside one polling station in Giza, state media reported, prompting officials to suspend voting temporarily.
But the ruling military council said the process had been orderly so far, with fewer violations reported than in the first round when parties were accused of campaigning outside polling stations.
“The situation is calm overall and there is a large voter turnout,” Hamdi Badeen said in a statement.
Officials said turnout in the first phase was 52 percent, higher than expected.
Results in three districts were postponed to December 21 after legal challenges for alleged campaigning violations, state media reported.
The election, which started on November 28, saw Islamist parties crush their liberal rivals, mirroring a pattern established in Tunisia and Morocco following a string of popular uprisings across the region.
Voters are required to cast three ballots: two for individual candidates and one for a party or coalition, in the assembly’s 498 seats.
Parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafist movements won 65 percent of all votes, trouncing liberal parties who managed 29.3 percent.
The second round takes place in Cairo’s twin city of Giza; Beni Sueif, south of the capital; the Nile Delta provinces of Menufiya, Sharqiya and Beheira; the canal cities of Ismailiya and Suez and the southern cities of Sohag and Aswan.
The Freedom and Justice Party said it won 32 out of 56 individual seats contested in the first phase of the polls, with four seats going to party allies.
In a separate party vote, which will see more than 100 seats distributed, the FJP won 36.6 percent while the Al-Nur party came second with 24.4 percent.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been widely forecast to triumph as the country’s most organised political group, as it is well known after decades of charitable work and its endurance through repeated crackdowns by the Mubarak regime.
But the good showing from Salafist groups was a surprise, raising fears of a more conservative and overtly religious new parliament.
The Brotherhood has been at pains to stress its commitment to multi-party democracy, inclusiveness and civil liberties, but also advocating the application of sharia law.
Nevertheless, the prospect of an Islamist-dominated parliament raises fears among liberals about religious freedom in a country with the Middle East’s largest Christian minority.
After choosing the lower house of parliament, which will end in January, Egyptians will elect an upper house in a further three rounds of polls.
Presidential elections are to be held by the end of June.