Initial results of Egypt's first free election in six decades will emerge on Thursday, with Islamist parties expecting to command a majority in parliament, hard on the heels of victories by their counterparts in Tunisia and Morocco.
Parliament, whose exact makeup will be clear only after Egypt's staggered voting process ends in January, may challenge the power of ruling generals who took over in February when a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak, an ex-air force chief.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-organized Islamist group, believes its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is on course to secure about 40 percent of seats allocated to party lists after the first stage of voting this week, which passed off peacefully, albeit with many irregularities.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani was quoted on Thursday as saying Islamists were likely to represent the next wave of political power in the Arab world and that the West should embrace them, saying moderate Islamists could help combat what he called extremist ideology.
"We shouldn't fear them, let's cooperate with them. We should not have a problem with anyone who operates within the norms of international law, comes to power and fights terrorism," Sheikh Hamad told the Financial Times.
Islamist success at the polls in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, would reinforce a trend in North Africa, where moderate Islamists now lead governments in Morocco and post-uprising Tunisia after election wins in the last two months.
Western powers are coming to accept that the advent of democracy in the Arab world may bring Islamists to power, but they also worry that Islamist rule in Egypt might erode social freedoms and threaten Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt's April 6 youth movement, a prime mover in the revolt against Mubarak, also said there was no cause for concern.
"No one should worry about the victory of one list or political current. This is democracy and this great nation will not allow anyone to exploit it again," its Facebook page said.
FJP officials have said the party is also leading the race for individual seats that account for a third of the total.
Al-Nour Party, one of several newly formed ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist groups, said during the voting that it would pick up at least 70 seats in the new assembly.
Such an outcome, if confirmed, would give Islamist parties an option to combine to form a solid majority bloc, although it is not certain that the Brotherhood would invite al-Nour to join a coalition after the party quit an FJP-led electoral alliance.
Senior FJP official Essam el-Erian said before the vote that Salafis, who had kept a low profile and shunned politics during Mubarak's 30-year rule, would be "a burden for any coalition."
The FJP might seek other partners, such as the liberal Wafd Party or the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, set up by former Brotherhood members in 1996 although not officially licenced until a few days after Mubarak's fall.
The liberal multi-party Egyptian Bloc has said it is on track to secure about a fifth of votes for party lists.
Perils of democracy
Some Egyptians fear the Muslim Brotherhood might try to impose Islamic curbs on a tourism-dependent country whose 80 million people include a 10 percent Coptic Christian minority.
Ali Khafagi, the leader of the FJP's youth committee, dismissed such concerns, saying the Brotherhood's goal was to end corruption and start reform and economic development.
Only a "mad group" would try to ban alcohol or force women to wear headscarves," Khafagi told Reuters on Wednesday.
The Brotherhood's priority, which gained trust by aiding the poor during the Mubarak years, is likely to be economic growth to ease poverty and convince voters they are fit to govern.
"They are going to have to deliver something. The bread-and-butter issues will be their focus," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre.
Any new government will have to grapple with an economic crisis that has already forced the Egyptian pound to its lowest level in nearly seven years after tourism and foreign investment collapsed in the turmoil since Mubarak's fall.
The ruling military council, under increasing pressure to make way for civilian rule, has said it will retain powers to choose or dismiss a cabinet. But the FJP leader said on Tuesday the majority in parliament should form the government.
Essam Sharaf's outgoing government quit during protests against army rule last month in which 42 people were killed, most near Cairo's Tahrir Square, hub of the anti-Mubarak revolt.
Kamal al-Ganzouri, asked by the army to form a "national salvation government", aims to complete the task in the next day or two, but acknowledged on Wednesday that five presidential candidates had turned down invitations to join his cabinet.
Protesters who returned to Tahrir last month, angered by the military's apparent reluctance to cede power, say the generals should step aside now, instead of appointing a man of the past like Ganzouri, 78, who was a premier for Mubarak in the 1990s.
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