- Associated Press - Thursday, December 1, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Following an unexpectedly large turnout, Egypt’s election commission announced Thursday a delay in final results for the first-round of parliamentary elections, while judges monitoring the count said Islamist parties are poised to gain a parliamentary majority.

The political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organized group, could take as much as 45 percent of the seats being contested. The Egyptian Bloc coalition of liberal parties and the ultra-fundamentalist Nour party were competing for second place, the judges said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the count remains incomplete.

Together, Islamist parties would have a majority, which could allow them to steer the long-secular U.S. ally in a more religiously conservative direction. Egypt would follow Tunisia and Morocco, where Islamist parties have won majorities in parliament since the outbreak of this year’s Arab Spring uprisings. Islamist parties present themselves as better able to rule justly than the region’s long-serving dictators, who often rule with Western support.

This week’s balloting, which covered nine of Egypt’s 27 provinces, was the first of six stages of elections that will be held through March to choose the first parliament following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in a popular uprising in February. The extent of the power of the new legislature remains uncertain.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a group of 20 generals who took control of the country when Mr.  Mubarak fell, has made moves to preserve its vast legislative and executive power.

But the Muslim Brotherhood likely will challenge the military on the issue, and high voter turn out in the elections could give it a stronger popular mandate to push for civilian rule.

Brotherhood leaders already have said they will lead coalition government after the vote that will choose its own prime minister.

The military has other plans. Last week, military leader Hussein Tantawi handpicked a Mubarak-era prime minister to head the next government. Kamal el-Ganzouri, who served under Mr. Mubarak in 1996-99, has yet to form a government, and it is difficult to imagine that he will only serve in that position for three months.

State media said Mr. el-Ganzouri was meeting Thursday with candidates for ministerial positions in the new government, which he is expected to announce Saturday.

Mr. el-Ganzouri also said the military council is the only body able to appoint a new government — a comment likely to further inflame accusations that his government is a mere front for continued military rule.

A collision between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood over the next stage of the transition would add yet another layer of turmoil in this nation of 85 million after nearly 10 months of disputes and rivalries, culminating with recent clashes between security forces and protesters demanding the military step down immediately.

The military did not field candidates in the parliamentary vote. But winning bragging rights for a smooth, successful and virtually fraud-free election would significantly boost the ruling generals in their bitter struggle with youthful protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding a transfer to civilian authority.

The duration of the next parliament’s term is also in question. If the military’s timetable for a transfer of power holds true, then the next parliament may not sit for more than a few months. Parliament will hold its inaugural session in March, meaning that a new constitution must be drafted and adopted in a referendum before presidential elections now slated for before the end of June.

The electoral commission previously said results from balloting on Monday and Tuesday would be announced late Thursday. But the state MENA news agency quoted commission head Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim as saying a large voter turnout has slowed down the counting process.

Official figures have not been released, but Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling military council, has estimated the turnout among some 50 million eligible voters was 70 percent.

The week’s voting will determine about 30 percent of the 498 seats of the People’s Assembly, parliament’s lower house. The subsequent two rounds, ending in January, will cover other provinces in turn. Then the process repeats until March to elect the less powerful upper house.

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