Egyptians were set to vote on Tuesday in the final round of a landmark post-revolution election that has propelled Islamist movements into the center stage of politics.
The last 15 million voters yet to cast their ballots in the first parliamentary polls since the overthrow of veteran president Hosni Mubarak last February were to have their say.
The third and final phase of the staggered vote will take place over two days in the Nile Delta provinces of Qaliubiya, Gharbiya and Daqahliya; the New Valley province; the southern governorates of Minya and Qena; the border province of Matruh; and in North and South Sinai.
Voters are being asked to elect 498 members of the People’s Assembly -- the lower house of parliament -- while 10 members will be appointed by the country’s interim military leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
Egypt’s main Islamist parties claimed a crushing victory in the first two rounds of voting.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s best organized political movement which was widely expected to triumph in the polls, has claimed the lead through its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
But the surge of al-Nour, which represents the ultra-conservative Salafi brand of Islam, has raised fears among increasingly marginalized liberals about civil liberties and religious freedom.
The Islamists’ victory, which mirrors a pattern in the region since the Arab Spring uprisings of last year overthrew authoritarian secular regimes, has also raised concerns about the future of the country’s lucrative tourism industry.
The Islamists’ liberal rivals -- including the country’s oldest party al-Wafd and liberal coalition the Egyptian Bloc -- have fared badly in the first two rounds of voting.
Liberals accuse groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist al-Nour party of flouting a ban on religious slogans in politics and telling voters their rivals are ungodly.
“We have been trying to tell people in our campaign before the third stage that we respect religions,” said Mohammed Abu Hamed, Secretary General of the liberal Free Egyptians party, according to Reuters.
Islamists in turn accuse one of the party’s top figures, Coptic Christian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, of using his media empire to mount a disinformation campaign against them.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) “demands from media outlets, especially those owned by businessmen who ... still have interests with the previous regime, to remain objective and stop distorting this experience, which people have been waiting for a long time,” the FJP said in a statement.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Mubarak was ousted, has repeatedly pointed to the elections as proof of its intention to hand the reins to a civilian government.
But the vote has exposed a deepening rift among Egyptians. Some see them as the first step to democratic rule, while others say the new parliament -- whose function remains unclear -- leaves control in the hands of the military.
Monitors mostly praised the first two rounds as free of the ballot stuffing, thuggery and vote rigging that once guaranteed landslide wins for Mubarak’s party.
But police raids on pro-democracy and rights groups last week have disrupted the work of leading Western-backed election monitors and drew accusations that the army was deliberately trying to weaken oversight of the vote and silence critics.
The government said the raids were part of a probe into illegal foreign funding of political parties and not aimed at weakening rights groups, which have been among the fiercest critics of the army’s turbulent rule.
Nevertheless, Washington called on the Egyptian government to halt “harassment” of the groups involved, according to Reuters.
The U.S.-funded International Republican Institute said it had been invited by Egypt government to monitor the election and did not give funding to political parties or civic groups.
It urged the government to let staff return to their offices and obtain the official registration they had long requested.
“There is no reason not to allow IRI to assess the elections,” the IRI said in a statement on Monday.
The ruling military has decided on a complex election system in which voters cast ballots for party lists, that will comprise two-thirds of parliament, and also for individual candidates for the remaining third of the lower house.
The procedure to elect a full assembly ends in February, after Egypt’s military ruler decreed on Sunday that the multi-phase elections for parliament's consultative upper house, the Shura Council, will be held over a shorter period.
With the final elections wrapping up earlier, the two houses will now be able to move more swiftly towards writing a new constitution.
The election for a new president is to take place by June.