Cairo (AP) – Islamists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.
Final results, expected Friday, will be the clearest indication in decades of Egyptians' true political views and give the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood a major role in the country's first freely elected parliament. An Islamist majority could also herald a greater role for conservative Islam in Egyptian social life and shifts in foreign policy, especially toward Israel and the Palestinians.
The showing in Egypt _ long considered a linchpin of regional stability _ would be the clearest signal yet that parties and candidates connected to political Islam will emerge as the main beneficiaries of this year's Arab Spring uprisings.
Tunisia and Morocco have both elected Islamist majorities to parliament, and while Libya has yet to announce dates for its first elections, Islamist groups have emerged as a strong force there since rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in August. They also play a strong opposition role in Yemen.
Judges overseeing the Egyptian vote count said Thursday that near-complete results show the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organized political group, could take as many as 45 percent of the contested seats.
In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood wins, parties backed by ultraconservative Salafist Muslims looked poised to take 20 percent, giving Islamist parties a striking majority in the first round of voting in key districts, including Cairo and Alexandria.
Similar results in the remaining rounds would give Islamist parties a majority in parliament, which many believe they will use to steer the long-secular U.S. ally in a more religiously conservative direction.
The Islamist victories came at the expense of a coalition of liberal parties called the Egyptian block, the group most closely linked to the youth activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising _ and which is expected to win only about 20 percent of seats.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood was officially banned and suppressed for decades, but built a nationwide network of activists who focused on providing services to the poor. After Mubarak's fall, the group campaigned as the Freedom and Justice Party, their organization and the Brotherhood's name-recognition giving them a big advantage over newly formed liberal parties.
The election also provided an opening for the Salafist Muslims whose strict Islamic practice is similar to that in Saudi Arabia. While the Muslim Brotherhood has said it will preserve individual rights, Salafi groups are not shy about their ambition to turn Egypt into a state where women must dress modestly and TV content deemed offensive will be banned.
The Brotherhood's leadership has so far avoided defining the ruling coalition it will seek to build. And during the campaign, it often avoided strict Islamist rhetoric in favor of more inclusive messages about social equality and clean government.
Critics, however, worry that once in power, the group will band together with its Islamist allies to impose stricter social codes. Many in Egypt's Coptic Christian minority fear they'll face new restrictions on building churches.
The Obama administration has lauded the elections, saying it will cooperate with the victors, no matter what their persuasion.
Israel, which has long considered its peace treaty with Egypt a buffer against regional war, worries Islamists will be less cooperative than Mubarak was. Israel is highly unpopular in most of Egyptian society, and Brotherhood leaders have suggested they'll review Egypt's relationship with the Jewish state. They may also deepen ties to Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.
This week's vote, held in seven provinces, will determine about 30 percent of the 498 seats in the People's Assembly, parliament's lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt's other 20 provinces. Three more rounds lasting until March will elect the less powerful upper house.
Egypt's election commission said that unexpectedly large voter turnout in the first round had slowed the count and that results, initially expected Thursday, would be announced Friday.
Participation figures have not been released, but Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman of the ruling military council estimated that 70 percent of eligible people voted.
The power the new legislature will have remains unclear.
Several members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country when Mubarak fell, have said the new parliament will not appoint the prime minister or have power to dismiss the Cabinet. The military has also said it will appoint 80 of the 100-member panel charged with drafting a new constitution.
The Brotherhood is expected to challenge the army on these issues, and a strong showing in the elections will boost its mandate to do so. The group's leaders have already said they will form a coalition government that will choose its own prime minister.
The military has other plans. Last week, military council head Hussein Tantawi appointed a Mubarak-era prime minister to head a new government. Kamal el-Ganzouri is expected to announce its members Saturday.
His government will not likely serve for more than a few months, and groups pushing for a faster transition to civilian rule consider it a mere front for continued military rule.
The trial of some 12,000 civilians before military courts this year has soured many on the military, and an attempt to clear the square of a sit-in by families of those killed by security forces two weeks ago sparked days of clashes in which some 40 more were killed.
This week's large voter turnout, however, could undermine the call for renewed protest more than any military statement, as many Egyptians seem to have placed their hopes in the political process.
Some youth leaders acknowledged this.
"The revolution has partially ended with the holding of the elections," said Ahmed Imam, a youth leader in the anti-Mubarak uprising. "The conflict now will not be between Tahrir and the military, but between the military and the next parliament. This will steal the spotlight from our revolutionary struggle."