Cairo: Results of Egypt’s first free election in six decades will emerge later on Thursday, with Islamist parties expecting a majority in parliament, as the ruling military painted a dire picture of the economy any government will inherit.

Shaping change: Election officials count ballots for the parliamentary elections in Cairo on Wednesday. By Amr Nabil/AP

Parliament, whose exact make-up will be clear only after Egypt’s staggered voting process ends in January, may challenge the power of the generals who took over in February after a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak, an ex-air force chief.

The army council, under growing pressure to make way for civilian rule, has said it will keep powers to pick or fire a cabinet. But the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party said this week the majority in parliament should form a government.

“We tried everyone, why not try Sharia (Islamic law) once?" asked Ramadan Abdel Fattah, 48, a bearded Egyptian civil servant who had voted for Islamists in Cairo.

In an alarming revelation hours ahead of partial first-round election results, a senior army official said foreign reserves would plunge to $15 billion by the end of January, down from the $22 billion reported by the central bank in October, with money pouring out of Egypt.

Mahmoud Nasr, financial assistant to army chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said that a widening budget deficit might force a review of costly subsidies, especially on petrol, to save money.

The economic crunch has forced the Egyptian pound to its lowest level in nearly seven years after tourism and foreign investment collapsed in the turmoil since Mubarak’s overthrow, with fewer visitors to the pharaonic sites on the Nile and foreign investors selling up and staying away.

The world is closely watching the election, keen for stability in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, owns the Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia, and which in Mubarak’s time was an ally in countering Islamist militants in the region.

Washington and its European allies have urged the generals to step aside swiftly and make way for civilian rule.

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 freedom and threaten Cairo’s 1979 peace pact with Israel.

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% of seats allocated to party lists after the first stage of voting this week, which passed off peacefully, albeit with many irregularities.

FJP officials have said the party is also leading the race for individual seats that account for one-third of the total in the poll, which is the first free election since army officers ousted the king in 1952.

Al-Nour Party, one of several newly formed ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist groups, said on Thursday that it expected to pick up 20% of assembly seats overall.

Officials were due to announce first-stage election results for individual seats at 7pm (1700 GMT), but not those for party-list seats, which will be made public in January.

“For the first time in Egypt, we don’t see a political intention by the state to forge the elections," said Magdy Abdel Halim, coordinator of an EU-backed group of election monitors.

Egypt’s 6 April youth movement, a prime mover in the revolt against Mubarak, said an Islamist win should not cause 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.

If the FJP and Nour secure the number of seats they expect, they could combine to form a solid majority bloc, although it is not certain the Brotherhood would want such an 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".

Some Egyptians fear the Brotherhood might try to impose Islamic curbs on a tourism-dependent country whose 80 million people include a 10% 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 said.

The priority of the Brotherhood is likely to be economic growth to ease poverty and convince voters.

“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.

Yasmine Saleh, Shaimaa Fayed, Maha El Dayan, Tom Perry and Tom Pfeiffer contributed to this story.

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