Egypt begins third round of voting


Egyptians voted in the third round of a parliamentary election today that has so far handed Islamists the biggest share of seats in an assembly that will be central in the planned transition from army rule.

Islamist groups came late to the uprising that unseated former president Hosni Mubarak in February, but were well placed to seize the moment when Egyptians were handed the first chance in six decades to choose their representatives freely.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) led after the first two rounds, and the strong showing by Islamist movements has sown unease among Western powers that only disowned Mr Mubarak when his three-decade rule was crumbling.

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 labour disputes over low wages preceded the wider protests that brought down Mr 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 Brotherhood and hardline Islamist al-Nour party, promising an end to corruption.

The concluding vote to parliament's lower house takes in regions of the rural south, which has the largest proportions of Christian voters, the Nile Delta region north of the capital Cairo, and the restive Sinai desert region to the east.

The ballot was overshadowed by the deaths of 17 people last month in clashes between the army and protesters demanding the ruling military council hand power to civilians immediately. The army says the elections will not be derailed by violence.

Turnout in earlier rounds was far higher than in Mr Mubarak's day, when ballot stuffing, thuggery and vote-rigging guaranteed landslide wins for his party.

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 government said the raids were part of an investigation into illegal foreign funding of political parties and not aimed at weakening rights groups, which have been among the fiercest critics of the army's rule.

The United States called on Egyptian authorities to halt "harassment" of the groups involved. Egypt's government said some of the groups had no permits to operate in the country.

Egyptians turned out in unprecedented numbers in the first two rounds and parties ranging from hardline Islamists to liberals and secularists are competing hard for every vote.

Liberals say groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline Islamist Al-Nour party, which surprised with a strong showing in earlier rounds, flout the ban on religious electoral slogans and tell voters their rivals are ungodly.

Islamists accuse one of the party's top figures, Coptic Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris, and others of using media they control to mount a disinformation campaign against them.

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 January 10th and 11th, with final results expected on January 13th.