By Edmund Blair
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians voted Wednesday in the second round of a parliamentary election with Islamist parties seeking to bolster early gains and secure a dominant position during the transition from army rule.
Islamists have capitalized in the poll on grassroots networks built up even when they were repressed by Hosni Mubarak, though Islamist groups took a back seat initially in the uprising that toppled the president in February.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) in the second round of the three-stage vote. The lower house vote will not be completed until January, while the army will not hand over full powers until after a presidential election in mid-2012.
"This is the first time our vote counts, we want to retain our rights," said Fatma Sayed, a government employee in Suez, a district voting in this round, speaking as she queued to cast a ballot in Egypt's first free election in decades.
Islamists ranging from hardliners to moderates secured about two-thirds of the votes in the first round but are not united, so liberals will have scope to stamp their mark on an assembly that will play a key role in drafting a new constitution.
The document will define the future powers of competing democratic institutions after decades of autocratic rule.
It is already the focus of a tussle between Egypt's newly assertive political class and the ruling generals and may become a battleground for Islamists and liberals.
The army-backed cabinet sparked violent protests that killed 42 people last month after it sought to insert articles to shield the military from any future civilian oversight.
That fuelled suspicions that the army wants to cling on to power even after the presidential poll expected in June.
A party list led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) came top in the first round, with strict Salafi Islamists surprise runners up. Liberals were pushed into third place and are trying to close ranks to fight back.
"I think the major trend will continue (in the second round) with some minor changes. The FJP will be first, but I think the percentage will be reduced relative to the first round," said Hassan Abou Taleb, political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
He suggested some voters, concerned by the rise of Islamists who they fear could introduce new religious strictures on society, might give a modest boost to liberals, though he did not expect any significant swing.
The Egyptian Bloc alliance, which includes liberal parties founded just months ago in the wake of Mubarak's downfall, and the decades old liberal Wafd party together secured about 20 percent of the votes for party lists in the first round.
Liberal politicians say they are trying to coordinate their effort more effectively in this round to avoid splitting their vote and have also tried to revitalize campaigns with more active street canvassing.
Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie has sought to reassure voters, saying his group wants to work in a broad coalition after the parliamentary election that is staggered over six weeks and ends in January.
"We will not rule Egypt alone. Parliament will include all the colors of the rainbow that must agree on one direction, one goal," he told a private television channel this month. He also said the group did not want a confrontation with the army.
Some analysts say the Brotherhood might prefer to find non-Islamist allies in parliament, rather than lining up with the main Salafi al-Nour Party, in bid to build up a position in mainstream politics and avoid alienating chunks of society.
"There is a big difference between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a real competition from an ideological perspective and also from their political experience," said Ahram's Abou Taleb.
For decades, the Brotherhood was formally banned buy semi-tolerated under Mubarak, giving it enough room to have some deputies in parliament who campaigned as "independents."
The Salafis, who had spurned politics, are new faces. Analysts say they have used long-established television satellite channels and mosques they control to make an impact.
Under Egypt's new electoral system, two thirds of parliament's 498 elected seats go to party lists and the rest go to individuals. The race is split into three phases, and each phase has a run-off vote for the individual seats.
Voting for each stage is held on two days. This time voting is Wednesday and Thursday in parts of Cairo not covered last time round, Ismailiya and Suez to the east of the capital, Aswan and Sohag to the south, and Nile Delta regions in the north.
Official results are not expected until Saturday or Sunday as results are collated from outlying areas. But, as in the first round, parties are likely to give indications of their performance sooner as they have representatives watching counting.
(Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Tim Pearce)