CAIRO, Nov 15 (AFP): Egyptians were voting Tuesday in runoffs for the first phase of parliamentary elections in which the banned Muslim Brotherhood is expected to continue its push against President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party.
No less than 133 out of the 164 seats up for grabs in the first phase remained to be decided after a first round on November 9 that saw an official turnout of 24.9 percent.
While 26 of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates cruised to victory last week, Islamists appeared on course for political gains after securing four seats in the first round.
The first phase of voting appeared set to yield few surprises, with the political scene looking increasingly polarised between the NDP and the Islamist movement.
NDP heavyweights such as parliament speaker Fathi Sorur and the man tipped to succeed him, Kamal al-Shazli, clinched easy first round victories.
But secular opposition candidates, including Ghad party leader and presidential runner-up Ayman Nur, suffered major first round defeats.
Amal Osman, one of only six women out of the 444 candidates fielded by the NDP, was the sole woman to secure her seat in the first round.
Makaram al-Deiri, the only female candidate running for the Muslim Brotherhood, was involved in a close run-off in Cairo's Nasr City constituency.
The ruling party controls 404 out of parliament's 454 seats, but the Muslim Brothers conducted an aggressive campaign which they hope will help them treble their current seat tally of 15.
The Islamists were out in the streets again on Tuesday, deploying maximum efforts to attract voters by setting up laptops with computerised registries to facilitate the polling process.
The Muslim Brothers also charged the state was using local officials and factory owners to pressure people to vote for the ruling party in the areas where the 42 Islamist candidates were contesting runoffs Tuesday.
On November 9, their leader Mohammed Mehdi Akef accused the NDP of organising mass fraud, an allegation echoed by most opposition candidates.
Independent NGOs monitoring the polls listed violations ranging from voter intimidation to falsified registries and widespread vote-buying.
In a sarcastic article entitled "Brisk trading on the vote exchange market", Egyptian editorialist Mohsen Arishie marvelled Tuesday at the sudden influx of brand new fridges, school bags and blankets in some of Cairo's poorest homes.
According to monitors, votes were bought for anything between 15 and 100 dollars, depending on the candidate and the neighbourhood, during the first round.
The state-owned Gomhurriya daily reported Monday that 400,000 ready meals had been distributed across the capital on November 9.
While the presidential election in which Mubarak swept to a fifth six-year mandate two months ago saw an unprecedented national debate on reform, the legislative polls are a very local and personalised affair where votes are lost and won with promises for micro-projects, jobs and bribes.
Yet the first round passed without any reports of major violence and NGOs praised the country's security forces for keeping a low profile.
Independent monitors, who include a small contingent from the European parliament and US organisations, were given unprecedented access to the 1,600 polling stations opened during the first phase.
However, opposition candidates and monitoring groups charged that the counting process remained far from transparent.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not field a candidate in the September presidential election, as it is officially a banned organisation.
It hopes that an improved representation in parliament will boost its case for legalisation, although the regime and its US ally oppose such a move.
The elections were planned in three two-round phases. The second, which includes Alexandria, is due to kick off on November 20 and all 26 governorates in the country will have finished voting by December 7.