CAIRO – Egyptians turned out in large numbers Wednesday for a second round of parliamentary elections, with Islamists looking to boost their already overwhelming lead and liberal voters concerned the outcome will push the country in a more religious direction.
Two Islamist blocs won close to 70 percent of seats in the first round on Nov. 28-29, according to an AP tally compiled from official results. The secular and liberal forces that largely drove Egypt's uprising were trounced, failing to turn their achievement into a victory at the polls.
The final two rounds of voting are not expected to dramatically alter the result and could 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 the famous 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 that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
He said he planned to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most organized and well-known party. the big winner in the first round with about 47 percent of contested seats.
The election is the first since Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster and is the freest in Egypt's modern history. The parliament will be tasked, in theory, with overseeing the drafting of a new constitution. Its actual role remains unclear.
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.
Nearly 19 million of Egypt's 50 million eligible voters can participate in the second round, which ends Tuesday. It will decide 180 seats in the 498-seat People's Assembly, the parliament's lower house.
So far, many voters say they are just happy to participate in a real election after decades of fraud and vote-rigging by Mubarak's party. Lines were so long at some polling stations that vendors set up shop to sell tea and snacks to voters during their wait.
The Islamists' strong showing has raised questions about the future of a country that has faced deteriorating security and economic free fall since the uprising. The two dominant Islamist groups -- the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party and the even more conservative Al-Nour bloc -- together took about 68 percent of the seats 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.
The Brotherhood is sending mixed messages about how much it will push to limit personal freedoms such as women's dress. Some have tried to assure the public they do not intend to strictly impose Islamic law, or Shariah. But other Brotherhood leaders have indicated a more hard-line direction, for example by suggesting tourists don't need to drink alcohol while they are in Egypt.
The Salafis say openly they will push for strict enforcement of Islamic law, 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 mermaids statues with cloth.
Some voters worried about the growing clout of Islamists turned out to support the liberal and secular parties that performed poorly in the first round. The liberal Egyptian Bloc came in a distant third with just nine percent.
"I was worried about all their statements about sex segregation, tourism and beaches," said Giza voter Omniya Fikry.
Egypt's economic situation has declined rapidly, with unrest scaring away foreign investors and decimating tourism, one of the country's prime sources of foreign income. Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri broke into tears in front of journalists this week while talking about the economy, calling it "worse than anyone imagines."
Islamist parties appealed to 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.
In city of Suez on the southern end of the Suez Canal, voters complained of neglect by the Mubarak regime and hoped the new leadership would fix the economy.
Voter Ahmed Salim, 48, came to the polling station with his daughter, who wore a face veil that showed only her eyes. He said he whole family supported the Salafis and wanted to see an end to corruption.
Throughout the country, activists for all main parties violated the ban on campaigning on election day, distributing flyers outside of polling stations.
Many voters said they had little knowledge about the parties or candidates -- even the ones they voted for, prompting many to worry that last minute campaigning could easily affect confused citizens, especially in a country where almost one-third of the population can't read.
Outside a polling station in Giza, a bearded man grabbed an elderly man on his way to vote and told him "Al-Nour party, OK?"
In another polling station, a reporter from The Associated Press saw a judge overseeing the vote fill out a ballot for an old man. When the judge noticed the reporter, he shouted, "Why are you here, old man, if you don't know who to vote for?"
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, election commission head Abdel-Moez Ibrahim called activists campaigning on election day "lawbreakers" and asked the public to report them so they could be punished. So far, no parties have been penalized for violations during the first round, when such practices were also common.