SUEZ CITY // When Ashraf Aly visited the polls yesterday to vote in the second round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, he cast his ballot for the party he believes will form a civil, moderate government: the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
"People can't distinguish now between parties. I don't know what [the Egyptian Bloc] is aiming for, and the Freedom and Justice Party has been here for so long," he said.
Voters came out in large numbers yesterday as the two-day polls opened in the second round of staggered parliamentary elections that will take six weeks to complete. An election monitor in Suez estimated a 30 per cent turnout, and expected similar numbers today. No official figures have been released.
A new set of nine governorates, including the Suez Canal, regions of the Nile Delta and Sohag and Aswan in Upper Egypt, voted for the first time since the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak in February. But the battle is not over for Egypt's main three players in the elections, pitting the liberals against Muslim Brotherhood's popular FJP and the Islamist parties among themselves.
In Suez, the secular Egyptian Bloc, which earned 16 per cent of the last round's vote in November is anxious to see if its hard-fought campaign will pay dividends. Candidates have spent much of recent weeks canvassing rural areas and smaller coastal towns hoping to attract the governorate's 380,000 eligible voters.
Free Egyptians party candidate Emad Khater Wassily in Suez said most of his days recently have been devoted to "greeting people as they enter their work at a factory, visiting government offices, and meeting people on the street.
But, Mr Wassily admits, the industrial city with a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence, has presented an "uphill battle".
Suez, which has a strong working-class presence, was a flashpoint during last February's revolution. The industrial city has long been a hotbed of labour militancy and resistance. It was here that the first protester was killed on January 25 and a police station torched.
Now, ten months later, campaign posters line the streets, strung between lamp lights and plastered to walls. In the days before the election, party tents lined the main street, manned by volunteers using desktop computers to look up polling stations for voters. Liberal parties have pooled their volunteers in Suez to monitor the election in a governorate with a half-million population.
But analysts say the parties will have to work harder to unify their ranks and earn voter trust if they hope to compete with the valuable name recognition that many FJP and Nour party candidates established through decades of grassroots charity work.
"It's not just that Egyptians are susceptible to the Islamic method, but it's also that there is a class division in Egypt and the secular parties have not been able to establish themselves as a party that caters to all people," said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
To combat that mentality, Tarek Yassin Al Rafan, a Free Egyptians party member and Sufi sheikh, travelled to Suez city in the days before the election to rally voters to the party and help assuage them that the party is not "anti-Islamic".
"I'm here to change the idea that this is a Christian party. As an Islamic clergyman, I am telling people this is not a [Coptic Christian] Naguib Sawiris party, it is a party of Free Egyptians," he said.
Mr Al Rafan had been running with the Egypt Bloc for the Giza labour seat but withdrew from the race last week to help pave the way for political analyst Amr el Shobky, who is running for the liberal, centrist El Adl party.
Multiple parties with similar platforms left the individual vote split in the first round, according to Adel Soliman, head of Cairo's International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies.
But efforts to coordinate may come too late, as ballots could not be altered to remove candidates' names and it's unlikely that the bloc has enough clout to influence voters on the street.
"It's not just about splitting the vote. Amr Shobkry has a PhD," said Mr Al Rafin, adding "We need people with legal and academic backgrounds writing the constitution, not just religious backgrounds."
The newly elected parliament's first task will be selecting a 100-member assembly to rewrite the constitution, though the military appointed a 30-member council to oversee the process.
An estimated 18.8 million people were set to cast ballots - 1.3 million more than the first round.