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Egyptians head to polls in third round of historic election

Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images

Egyptian women and children gather under an electoral campaign banner near a polling station in Minya, some 350 kilometers south of Cairo, during the third and final round of landmark parliamentary elections on Tuesday.

CAIRO - Islamists looked to seal their domination of Egypt's first democratically elected parliament as Egyptians voted Tuesday in the final round of multistage elections.

Party agents flooded the streets with banners and verses from the Koran.

The army faced anger over its handling of protests that left 17 people dead in Cairo last month and an economic crisis has made it harder to meet the aspirations of citizens yearning for a better life since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

In an industrial region north of Cairo where labor disputes over low wages preceded the wider protests that brought down Mubarak, optimism was high as residents lined up to vote.

"I am glad to be alive to witness this - a free election in Egypt," said Ahmed Ali al-Nagar, a carpenter in his late 50s from Mahalla el-Kubra. "Workers had a big impact on the political outcome we are living through these days."

The end of voting and the convening of parliament, due on Jan. 23, could set the stage for jostling for authority between the ruling military and lawmakers, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The two sides must work out how to put together a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution.

Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is on track to emerge as the largest bloc by far in parliament, demand the legislature be allowed to choose the panel. However, the military is trying to grab a role for itself to ensure that it continues to be above any civilian scrutiny.

The military has said that presidential elections would be held before the end of June, but it has yet to say whether the drafting of the new constitution should come before the vote, as Islamists want. The generals, who took power after the Feb. 11 fall of  Mubarak, say they will step aside when a new president is sworn in.

'Tahrir Square is still there'
Turnout has been far higher and the election atmosphere less tense than in Mubarak's day, when ballot stuffing, thuggery and vote-rigging guaranteed landslide wins for his party.

In Mahalla and the wealthier city of Mansoura, queues at polling stations were shorter than in previous rounds but voting appeared orderly.

Streets were dotted with the posters of parties, especially the Brotherhood and hardline Islamist al-Nour party, promising an end to corruption.

"I have chosen to vote for the Freedom and Justice Party as I like its talk and I think it has a long history and experience and I think they will help us the most," said Amany al-Mursy, a smiling middle-aged woman from Mansoura.

"And if it does not do as we hoped, Tahrir Square is still there. If something goes wrong, we will go out and say something is wrong and remove the wrong people and replace them." 

Elections for the 498-seat parliament are the first to be held since Mubarak's ouster. In the third and final round of the election, some 14 million voters in a third of Egypt's 27 provinces were picking 150 members of parliament, the first of two days of voting that will be followed by runoffs next week.

The balloting is taking place in areas known as strongholds of Islamist parties and is unlikely to change the trend of the election so far.

In the previous two stages of the election, the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist group that is Egypt's most organized political force, has emerged with between 40-50 percent of the vote so far. The Al-Nour Party, which is based in the more conservative Islamic Salafi movement, has gained around 20 percent.

Liberal and secular groups that led the uprising that forced Mubarak from power have performed poorly in the staggered elections, which started Nov. 28.

The exact numbers of seats won by each group so far could not be known because of the complicated voting system Egypt is using.

Some seats are determined in a direct race between candidates, while others are divvied out in proportion to each party's percentage of overall votes. The election commission is to announce the actual numbers of seats at the end of the entire process. Final election results are due to be announced Jan. 13.

Elections for parliament's toothless upper house have been brought forward by the military and will now be held next month in two stages.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.