Partial results Wednesday showed the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as the biggest winner in Egypt's landmark parliamentary elections, and leaders of the once-banned Islamic group demanded to form the next government, setting the stage for a possible confrontation with the ruling military.
The generals who took power after the February fall of Hosni Mubarak have said they will name the government and the parliament would have no right to dissolve it. They have also sought to wrest from the new parliament the more long-reaching and crucial role of running the process for writing the new constitution.
But the Brotherhood's confidence was riding high after the unexpectedly large turnout this week for two days of voting. Millions lined up at the polls for the first of multiple rounds of balloting in their country's first free election in living memory.
Even before polls closed on Tuesday, Mohammed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told reporters outside a polling center in Cairo that the majority in parliament must put together the government, which he said should be a coalition of the main parties.
Another top Brotherhood figure, Sobhi Saleh, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Mursi's comments were a message to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces not to act unilaterally.
"You can't come and say, 'I choose the government and I sack the government.' Its over, the people have emerged," he said. "If you impose a government on me that I don't endorse, you are creating tension in the relationship."
The high turnout, he said, shows that Egyptians want a fully empowered parliament and that "you, yourself, are subject to the people's authority," referring to the generals.
Final results from the round, which covered nine of Egypt's 27 provinces, will be issued Thursday night. The Brotherhood appeared convinced it surpassed already high expectations. Saleh, for example, boasted the group won 50 percent. But the true extent of its win was not yet known. In rural provinces in particular, the main party of the ultraconservative Islamist Salafis, who are more hard-line than the Brotherhood, appeared to do surprisingly well, cutting into the Brotherhood vote. In other places, the main liberal-secular grouping made a strong showing.
A collision between the military and the 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 since Mubarak was ousted by an unprecedented wave of protests, led by liberal and secular activists.
Such a confrontation would also put liberals in a tight position: They generally oppose the military's domination as undemocratic, but also worry an emboldened Brotherhood will turn the country toward Islamic rule.
The 80-year-old Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak and subjected to waves of arrests and oppression, but still built the country's strongest political organization. With Mubarak's fall, they have been unrelenting in their determination that they finally gain what they see as their rightful portion of power. For much of the past months, that has meant support for the military to ensure that elections take place.
The military, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has been equally determined to keep its grip since the ouster of Mubarak, one of their own.
Their transition plan means that the new parliament would be a weakened body.
The Egyptian system gives the president the right to name the government, and the military has insisted it as head of state will keep that power. The generals have also set guidelines for who will make up a 100-member body to write the new constitution, even though a military-backed referendum in March gave that power to the new parliament.
Moreover, the new parliament may only sit for a few months. It will hold its inaugural session in January. Under the military's timetable, a constitution must be written and adopted in time for presidential elections slated for the end of June. A new president will most likely call a new parliamentary election to be held under the provisions of the new constitution.
Saleh, who ran as a Brotherhood candidate in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria and was heavily favored to win, said the ruling council must coordinate with the parliament. "The public mood in Egypt now is against dictatorship," he said.
He spoke of the Brotherhood as the majority force that must be allowed to shape the next stages. He boasted that the group won 50 percent of the vote and "this percentage will be higher in the future."
Saleh said the Brotherhood would seek a broad government including liberal parties, not a strictly "Islamist" coalition with the Salafis.
"We seek diversity because we believe that we don't live alone in Egypt. We will be the core of moderation in parliament," he said. "If the extremists want to go too far to the right, they will find themselves alone in this corner."
Monday and Tuesday'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.
Partial results from across the first-round provinces, which included most notably Cairo, Alexandria, the southern cities of Luxor and Assiut, showed the Brotherhood in the lead, according to judges overseeing the count. About half to 80 percent of the votes had been tallied in the various provinces.
But the Salafi Nour Party and a liberal-secular alliance known as the Egyptian Bloc appeared to be making strong showing in some places, the judges said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the results were not final.
For example, according to a Brotherhood statement based on its monitoring of the count, the Brotherhood so far had 30 percent of the vote in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh, while the Nour Party had 22 percent, unexpected for their party created only months ago. In the Red Sea province, the Egyptian Bloc placed second to the Brotherhood.
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