CAIRO - Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called on its rivals to accept the will of the people on Saturday after a first-round vote set its party on course to take the most seats in the country's first freely elected parliament in six decades.
Preliminary results showed the Brotherhood's liberal rivals could be pushed into third place behind ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists, mirroring the trend in other Arab countries where political systems have opened up after popular uprisings.
The Brotherhood is Egypt's best-organised political group and popular among the poor for its long record of charity work. Banned but semi-tolerated under President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled on Feb. 11 by a street revolt, the Brotherhood now wants a role in shaping the country's future.
Rivals accused the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party of using handouts of cheap food and medicine to influence voters and of breaking election rules by lobbying outside voting stations.
The Brotherhood told critics to back off and respect the result.
"We call upon everyone, and all those who associate themselves with democracy, to respect the will of the people and accept their choice," it said in a statement after the first-round vote, which drew an official turnout of 62 percent.
"Those who weren't successful ... should work hard to serve people to win their support next time," the Brotherhood added.
The world is watching the election for pointers to the future in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and one hitherto seen as a firm U.S. ally committed to preserving its peace treaty with Israel and fighting Islamist militancy.
The Brotherhood's political opponents say it seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on a country that also has a large Christian minority.
The movement insists it will pursue a moderate agenda if it wins power and do nothing to damage an economy reliant on millions of Western tourists.
"DON'T GIVE UP"
Liberal parties lacking the Islamists' grassroots base were trying to avert a landslide in run-off votes set for Monday and in two further rounds of an election staggered over six weeks.
The Egyptian Bloc, an alliance of liberal groups, ran large advertisements in newspapers to appeal for more support.
"Don't soften your support for the civil, moderate current to achieve a balanced parliament that represents the Egyptian people, and do not give up your rights," the message read.
With the Brotherhood and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals apparently set for a majority in the assembly, newspapers were debating if they would unite to form a dominant bloc.
Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the Salafi al-Nour Party, told al-Dustour daily that talk of forming a coalition with the Brotherhood was premature and the results of the second and third rounds would determine the possibilities.
"All the indications show that the Muslim Brotherhood does not want to inaugurate an alliance with Islamic forces, but rather to conclude a coalition with liberal and secularist forces during the coming parliament," Asem Abdel-Maged, spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, a Salafi group not aligned closely with al-Nour, told al-Dustour. (Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Tim Pearce)
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