Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give the religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.
Spokesman Yousseri Hamad says the Salafi Nour party expects to get 30 percent of the vote. Their party appeared to lead the polls in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheik, in the rural area of Fayoum, which is known for high rates of illiteracy and poverty, and in parts of their longtime stronghold of Alexandria.
Hamad also said the party faced its toughest challenge in Cairo because of the small presence of Salafi supporters there.
The strong showing would put them in a position to influence policy, although it's unclear how much power the new parliament will have with the ruling generals still in power. For example, the military, which is not keen to see Egypt delivered to radical Islamists, maintains that it - not the largest bloc in parliament - will choose the next Cabinet. It is also poised to closely oversee the drafting of a new constitution.
The Nour Party's purist pursuit of strict Shariah, or Islamic law, would also face tough opposition from a diverse array of youth activists in the streets, Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, as well as liberal and secular political parties pushing for more social and political freedoms - perhaps forcing it to veer less toward the large role that religion plays in Saudi Arabia.
The Nour Party is the main political arm of the hard-line Salafi movement, which was inspired by the Saudi-style Wahhabi school of thought.
Salafists are newcomers on Egypt's political scene. They long shunned the concept of democracy, saying it allows man's law to override God's. But they formed parties and entered politics after Mubarak's ouster to position themselves to try to make sure Shariah law is an integral part of Egypt's new constitution.
The more moderate and pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has been around since 1928 and has for decades been the largest and best organized opposition movement in Egypt, despite being officially outlawed until Mubarak's ouster.
Seeking to broaden its political appeal, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has described its election platform as civil but with an Islamic background, setting them up to be more rival than ally to harder-line Islamists.
Hamad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that his party is willing to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood as well as with secular and liberal forces "if it will serve the interest of the nation."
Still, Salafi groups speak confidently about their ambition to turn Egypt into a state where personal freedoms, including freedom of speech, women's dress and art are constrained by Islamic Shariah codes.
"In the land of Islam, I can't let people decide what is permissible or what is prohibited. It's God who gives the answers as to what is right and what is wrong," Hamad said. "If God tells me you can drink whatever you want except for alcohol, you don't leave the million things permitted and ask about the prohibited."
Their surprisingly strong showing worries many liberals and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population.
"We want democracy and what they want is anything but democratic," said Amir Fouad, a Coptic Christian who trained as an engineer but drives a taxi because he can't find another job.
"They want Egypt to be like Saudi Arabia, all Islamic."
Fouad, 40, said he worries the Salafists will force Christian women to wear Islamic veils.
"I feel like it will be very hard for me to live in Egypt if they rule," he said. "They will take Egypt backward."
Even some religious Egyptians see the Salafists as too extreme.
"I am religious and don't want laws that go against my beliefs, but there shouldn't be religious law," said Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a geography teacher. "I don't want anyone imposing his religious views on me."
Islamist victory in Egypt - long considered a linchpin of regional stability - would be the clearest signal yet that parties and candidates connected to political Islam will emerge as the main beneficiaries of this year's Arab Spring uprisings.
Tunisia and Morocco have both elected Islamist majorities to parliament, and while Libya has yet to announce dates for its first elections, Islamist groups have emerged as a strong force there since rebels overthrew Moammar Gadhafi in August. They also play a strong opposition role in Yemen.
This week's vote, held in nine provinces, will determine about 30 percent of the 498 seats in the People's Assembly, parliament's lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt's other 18 provinces.
The new parliament, in theory, is tasked with selecting a 100-member panel to draft Egypt's new constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country after Mubarak's fall in February, has suggested that it will choose 80 of those members.
The Carter Center, which sent teams to observe the parliamentary vote, said in a Friday statement that participation was high and that all parties appeared committed to a democratic transition in Egypt.
The center, which visited more than 300 stations in the nine provinces that voted, also called on election officials to better prepare workers at polling and counting stations and issue clearer regulations about campaigning before future rounds of voting.
Despite a legal ban on campaigning on election day, many parties actively distributed flyers outside polling stations.
Also Friday, more than 5,000 protesters demonstrated in Cairo's Tahrir Square to call for a speedier transition to civilian rule and trials for security officers accused of killing protesters.
Large crowds marched into the square carrying dozens of coffins wrapped in Egyptian flags to represent those killed in clashes with the police near the square in the week before the elections. Islamist groups did not join the protests, hanging their hopes - for now at least - on the election results.
While the number of protesters was smaller that in recent weeks, many said they had voted but still considered protest necessary. "People haven't given up on the square just because there were elections," said Ibrahim Hussein, who voted this week for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. "They all have the same demands and they haven't been met yet."
In Cairo's Abdeen neighborhood, a few thousand protesters marched in support of the military, saying only it can bring stability at this time.