CAIRO The Muslim Brotherhood said the parliament that emerges from Egypt's landmark elections should form a government, setting the stage for possible confrontation between Islamists and the ruling generals who have only just named a new prime minister.
The results of the first phase of the three-stage poll which could bring the Muslim Brotherhood closer to power were due to start coming out on Wednesday, but the military council which took over from ousted President Hosni Mubarak has yet to step aside.
Millions of voters went to the polls in a mostly peaceful two-day vote, though the calm was shattered on Tuesday night when nearly 80 people were wounded in violence focused around a Cairo sit-in protest by activists demanding an end to army rule.
The election for Egypt's lower house is due to conclude in early January but early results were expected to trickle out on Wednesday after a high turnout and only minor infringements were reported.
State television broadcast live footage of the vote count across Egypt, which has not seen an election this free in the decades since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood went into the polls stronger than nascent secular parties, analysts say it is hard to predict the outcome given that most of the electorate are casting their ballots for the first time.
Election monitors reported logistical hiccups and some campaign violations but no serious violence to disrupt proceedings. Election posters and banners festooned towns and cities while judges officiated under the eye of troops, police and election monitors.
The outcome of the election in one of the Middle East's most influential powers will help shape the future of a region convulsed by uprisings against decades of autocracy.
Though it did not start the Egyptian uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a major beneficiary of the revolt. The group, outlawed by Mubarak and his predecessors, is now in sight of a role in shaping the country's future.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing established earlier this year, said Egypt's new parliament should form the government.
"A government that is not based on a parliamentary majority cannot conduct its work in practice," FJP head Mohamed Mursi told reporters during a tour of polling stations in the working-class district of Shubra in Cairo.
"Therefore we see that it is natural that the parliamentary majority in the coming parliament will be the one that forms the government," said Mursi, adding:
"We see that it is better for it to be a coalition government built on a majority coalition in the parliament."
PARLIAMENT AT CENTRE STAGE
It was only last week that the military council appointed Kamal al-Ganzouri, a 78-year-old veteran of the Mubarak era, to form a cabinet to replace the government of Essam Sharaf, which resigned in the face of protests against military rule.
A military council member said at the weekend the new parliament would not have the authority to dismiss Ganzouri's government or form a new one. Yet observers question whether the council will be able to resist the will of a chamber elected in a fair vote, especially if voting carries on smoothly.
A senior figure in the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood said its FJP had done well in the voting so far.
"The Brotherhood party hopes to win 30 percent of parliament," Mohamed El-Beltagy told Reuters.
The leader of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist al-Nour Party, which hopes to siphon votes from the Muslim Brotherhood, said organisational failings meant his party had underperformed.
But he told Reuters the party still expected to win up to half of second city Alexandria's 24 seats in parliament and, nationwide, 70 to 75 of the assembly's 498 elected seats.
The success of the first phase has deflected criticism faced by the military council, which has been under pressure from street protesters over what they see as the generals' attempts to maintain power and privilege in the post-Mubarak era.
The military council has said turnout would exceed more than 70 percent, though the FJP's Mursi said indications showed a lower figure of 40 percent.
In one of the military's first reactions to the election's first phase, General Ismail Atman, a ruling army council member, was quoted by Al-Shorouk newspaper as saying the poll showed the irrelevance of the Tahrir Square protest.
Last week was Egypt's most violent since Mubarak was ousted: 42 people were killed in clashes triggered by the protests against the military council, mostly in streets around Tahrir. The Tahrir sit-in protest against the military council entered its 12th day on Wednesday.
ELBARADEI BLAMES "THUGS"
Tuesday night's violence in Tahrir erupted when youths who could not be identified had tried to enter the square, one of the protest organisers said.
In the ensuing trouble, petrol bombs were thrown in the direction of the protesters and guns were fired. Twenty-seven of the wounded were taken to hospital, the official MENA news agency reported.
In criticism of the military-run government, leading reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter feed: "Thugs are now attacking the protesters in Tahrir. A regime that cannot protect its citizens is a regime that has failed in performing its basic function."
The term thugs was often used to describe violent pro-Mubarak elements who disrupted elections in the rigged polls of the past and who used camels in the final days of the Mubarak era to try and intimidate protesters in Tahrir Square.
Many Egyptians were worried elections would be bloody. Instead, the vote won international praise.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Egyptians on the first stage of the election and the "generally calm and orderly manner in which voting took place", a statement from his office said.
Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, one of many groups monitoring the poll, said it was "a fair guess" that turnout would exceed 50 percent, far above the meagre showings in rigged Mubarak-era elections.
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta and Tom Perry, Patrick Werr, Peter Millership and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Millership and Ralph Gowling)