By Edmund Blair and Dina Zayed
CAIRO (Reuters) - Rival Islamists in Egypt's parliamentary election played up their differences in a first-round run-off vote, with the top-placed Muslim Brotherhood anxious to show a moderate face to Egyptians hungry for stability.
Hardline Salafis were the surprise runner-up in last week's opening stage, the biggest test of the public mood since street protests ended Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule in February.
But during the run-offs that conclude on Tuesday, both the Salafis and the Brotherhood are sounding lukewarm on the chances of forming a dominant Islamist bloc if they repeat their early success in subsequent voting rounds ending on January 11.
"There were attempts to unite but Salafis are very difficult," said Mohamed Hussein, 20, as he distributed leaflets for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in front of a polling station in the port city of Alexandria.
"We may agree on certain things but we are different in vision and strategy," he said. "It is easier for me to talk with a liberal or a socialist than a Salafi."
The Salafi al-Nour's Party's leader Emad Abdel Ghaffour said the Brotherhood may try to paint the Salafis as troublemakers. "We hate being followers," he told Reuters.
Army generals have ruled a restive Egypt for nine months promising a transition to democratic civilian rule. Mass protests and street clashes in the run-up to the parliamentary vote forced them to bring forward their departure date.
The elected assembly, with its fresh popular mandate, will loom over the ruling military council until the army hands power to an elected president in mid-2012.
Despite its early electoral success, the Brotherhood seems unlikely to seek a showdown with the generals. Egypt's oldest Islamist group renounced violence long ago and has tended to avoid confrontation in furthering its aims.
Its chosen pitch for now is likely to be a new constitution that the new parliament will influence by appointing the assembly that will draft the document.
Voting was slow in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said as the run-offs began on Monday, in contrast to the crowds at polling stations last week.
After the opening round, the FJP's party list won 36.6 percent of valid first-round votes, with al-Nour's list winning 24.4 percent and a liberal Egyptian Bloc on 13.4 percent.
But one fifth of the FJP's list included a variety of smaller parties that included the liberal al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party and the left-leaning Karama (Dignity), a precedent for possible cooperation between the Brotherhood and liberals.
Al-Nour - which wants to stop visitors wearing bikinis on the beach and ban alcohol, a death knell for tourism - quit an electoral alliance with the FJP before the vote, accusing the FJP of hogging too many seats on the list.
The Brotherhood's rivals say it bent campaigning rules by lobbying for votes outside polling stations. The movement said its rivals should accept the result as the will of the people.
Its early success was no surprise given its large network of activists and decades of grass-roots charity work.
But the strong showing by Salafis was a shock for many liberal Muslims and for Coptic Christians, who make up a tenth of Egypt's 80-million population.
"We still have high hopes that the silent majority in the coming two phases will go to the ballot boxes and we still rely on a comeback by the liberal wing," said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Orthodox Coptic newspaper al-Watani.
Even if the Brotherhood consolidates its first-round success, Sidhom said, its more moderate members may prevail.
"They know they cannot honor the responsibility that has been bestowed upon them by the people by only preaching Islamic beliefs and a fundamentalist Islamic way of life," he said.
Under a complex system, two-thirds of the 498 elected lower house seats go proportionately to party lists, with the rest going to individual candidates, who must win more than 50 percent of votes in the first round to avoid a run-off.
Only four seats were won outright in the first round, leaving 52 to be decided in the run-off voting on Monday and Tuesday, 24 of them contested between the FJP and al-Nour. Other seats will be decided in later rounds.
(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan, Maha Dahan and Edmund Blair; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Louise Ireland)