More than 8 million Egyptians voted in the opening round of their first free vote in six decades in what the election chief said on Friday was a turnout of 62 percent, far higher than in the rigged polls of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s party and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals looked set to top the polls, to the alarm of many at home and abroad. Moderate Islamists have won elections in Tunisia and Morocco in the past two months.
The emergence of ambitious Salafi parties is one of the starkest measures of change in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The world is watching the election for pointers to the future in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and one hitherto seen as a firm US ally committed to preserving its peace treaty with Israel and fighting Islamist militancy.
The head of the election committee, Abdul Moez Ibrahim, joked that the turnout was the highest in any Egyptian election “since the pharaohs.” It was even greater than in the “forgeries of the past elections,” he added, referring to the Mubarak era.
He said 8.3 million of 13.6 million registered voters in areas that voted in the first round had cast their ballots. Other parts of the country will vote in two more rounds and run-offs must also be held in a six-week election process.
“The blood of martyrs has watered the tree of freedom, social justice and the rule of law. We are now reaping its first fruits,” Ibrahim said in tribute to more than 850 people killed in a popular revolt that toppled Mubarak in February.
Protesters were out again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to mourn 42 people killed in the 10 days before the vote at rallies demanding that the generals who replaced Mubarak give way to civilian rule.
“Without Tahrir, we wouldn’t have had these elections,” Mohamed Gad said in the square that cradled the revolt. “God willing, the elections will succeed and the revolution will triumph.”
However, many of the young people who took to the streets early this year now fear their revolution risks being stolen, either by the army rulers or by well-organized Islamist parties.
Ibrahim announced the results of only a handful of clear-cut victories for individual candidates, with most going to run-offs next week and gave no figures for party lists in the polls.
He said four candidates, two from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and two liberals, won over 50 percent of votes for outright victory out of 56 individual seats at stake.
The FJP said 39 of its candidates would fight run-off races.
A senior official of the Salafi Nour Party, Yousry Hamad, said 26 of its contenders were involved in run-offs, 24 of them going head-to-head with FJP candidates.
“We will go into the run-offs with all our might and there will be no deals with anyone. We will aim to do better than we have already,” Nour leader Emad Abdel Ghafour said.
In Egypt’s election process, two-thirds of the 498 seats will go proportionately to party lists, with the rest to individual candidates.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, has said its FJP expects to win 43 percent of party list votes in the first stage, building on the Islamist group’s decades of grassroots social and religious work.
The Brotherhood’s Web site also forecast that the Salafi al-Nour party would gain 30 percent of the vote, a shock for some Egyptians, especially minority Christian Copts, who fear it will try to impose strict Islamic codes on society.