Egyptians appear to have voted overwhelmingly to elect an Islamist government, partial but substantial returns indicate.
The first round of results from voting in the principal cities of Cairo and Alexandria, along with other key districts show a wide lead for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) followed, surprisingly, by the Salafist Nour Party and the secular Free Egyptians Party (FEP).
If the final results are consistent with these early returns, it will give Islamists more than 50 per cent of the seats in this key round of voting.
(The other two thirds of Egypt's 27 governates vote in two further rounds over the next six weeks.) The Free Egyptians Party, created by telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris, is the only secular party to challenge the Islamists, the early returns show.
"In the last 30 years, I never expected this day to come," said a beaming Amr Ali el-Shami, 30, outside the Salafist al-Hoda mosque in the older al-Daher district of Cairo.
"This is God's message to the Egyptian people -- to live in a better place under the democracy of Islam," he said.
Mohammed Sayeed, in his mid 30s, was less excited.
"This area has a lot of Christians who voted for Sawiris [founder of the secular Free Egyptians Party]" he said. "The Church told them to do this."
Naguib Abadir, the FEP's executive director, says the overall goal of his party, along with two allied left-wing secular parties, is "to form a blocking minority [more than a third of the 508 seats] in the parliament to open in the new year.
"That's the only way we can be sure to stop an Islamist agenda," said Dr. Abadir, a Christian who, like Mr. Sawiris, holds special concerns about an Islamist governate that might not treat Egypt's 10 million Christians as equals.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Essam El-Erian, vice-chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, insists that Christians and secular Muslims have nothing to fear from an Islamist government.
"It takes all Egyptians to make up this country," Dr. El-Erian said. "We accept that and we respect the people's choices."