SHARM EL-SHEIKH: Egyptians were voting on Tuesday in the final round of a landmark post-revolution election that has propelled Islamist movements into the centre stage of politics.
Fourteen million eligible voters in nine regions were choosing who occupies 150 of the seats in parliament. The staggered lower-house election concludes with a run-off vote on Jan. 10 and 11, with final results expected on Jan. 13.
Small queues began to form outside polling stations which opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in nine of the country’s 27 provinces, including the Nile Delta, the south and the tourist resorts of South Sinai, with voting taking place over two days.
Voters had to pass through metal detectors before entering polling stations in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, tourist mecca and site of Mubarak’s second residence.
In the Nile Delta province of Qaliubiya, the turnout appeared low compared with the first rounds with dozens standing outside a school waiting to vote.
"I’m incredibly happy today, I feel like my country is seeing a huge change," said Amira, 25.
The first two rounds of voting saw Egypt’s main Islamist parties claim a crushing victory, mirroring a pattern in the region since the Arab Spring uprisings overthrew authoritarian secular regimes.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s best organized political movement which was widely expected to triumph in the polls, has claimed the lead through its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
But the surge of Al-Nour, which represents the ultra-conservative Salafi brand of Islam, has raised fears among increasingly marginalized liberals about civil liberties and religious freedom.
The Islamists’ victory has also raised concerns about the future of the country’s lucrative tourism industry.
"God willing, the FJP will win. They are good people. Tourism is their priority, they will never shut it down," said one of the voters, Umm Mohamed, a government employee whose husband works in tourism in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Her friend, Umm Esraa, said "most FJP people here work in tourism so they would be the first to be scared for its future."
The Islamists’ liberal rivals — including the country’s oldest party Al-Wafd and liberal coalition the Egyptian Bloc — have fared badly in the first two rounds of voting.
Many citizens see the first fair election they can remember as a chance to end the blight of incompetent leadership and a culture of venality among the powerful that enriched a few and left millions in poverty.
In an industrial region north of Cairo where labor disputes over low wages preceded the wider protests that brought down Mubarak, optimism was high as residents lined up to vote.
"I am glad to be alive to witness this – a free election in Egypt," said Ahmed Ali al-Nagar, a carpenter in his late fifties from Mahalla el-Kubra. "Workers had a big impact on the political outcome we are living through these days."
Mahalla’s streets were dotted with the posters of parties, especially the FJP and Al-Nour party, promising an end to corruption.
Brotherhood banners in Mahalla carried its motto "Islam is the solution" alongside its FJP party logo, in defiance of a ban on religious slogans.
Flyers for Al-Nour carried names of influential local families who had lent their support. Residents said such sponsorship boosted the popularity of the ultra-conservative party, which has also opened shops carrying its name.
Monitors praised the first two rounds as relatively free of irregularities, while noting that many parties had defied a ban on campaigning outside polling stations in election day.
But police raids on pro-democracy and rights groups last week have disrupted the work of leading Western-backed election monitors and drawn accusations that the army was deliberately trying to weaken oversight of the vote and silence opponents.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Mubarak was ousted, has repeatedly pointed to the elections as proof of its intention to hand the reins to a civilian government.
But the vote has exposed a deepening rift among Egyptians. Some see them as the first step to democratic rule, while others say the new parliament — whose function remains unclear — leaves control in the hands of the military.
The SCAF has faced growing outrage over the actions of security forces against demonstrators for an immediate transition to civilian rule, which have resulted in dozens of deaths and been widely criticized as heavy-handed.
The SCAF has also come under fire after raids on 17 offices of non-governmental organizations, three of them US-funded, that prompted hints from Washington that it may review its huge aid program.
The ruling military has decided on a complex election system in which voters cast ballots for party lists, that will comprise two-thirds of parliament, and also for individual candidates for the remaining third of the lower house.
The procedure to elect a full assembly ends in February, after Egypt’s military ruler decreed on Sunday that the multi-phase elections for parliament’s consultative upper house, the Shoura Council, will be held over a shorter period.
With the final elections wrapping up earlier, the two houses will now be able to move more swiftly towards writing a new constitution.
The election for a new president is to take place by June. –Additional reporting by agencies