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CAIRO (Reuters) - A liberal Egyptian party co-founded by telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris said on Monday it would boycott upper house elections later this month in protest against what it says were violations committed by Islamist parties in earlier voting rounds.
A strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis pushed liberal groups, including Sawiris's Free Egyptians Party (FEP), into third and fourth place in three rounds of voting for the lower house, with run-offs set to complete voting for the main part of the assembly this week.
The FEP's withdrawal could be a major blow to the Egyptian Bloc, an alliance of liberal and leftist groups of which it is a key member. The Egyptian Bloc is expected to win at least nine percent of seats in the lower house, where Islamists so far claim at least 60 percent.
The FEP called on other parties to join it in boycotting the Shura Council election and it was not immediately clear whether the Egyptian Bloc would run without one of its main parties.
"The process turned into a religious competition rather than an electoral one..." the FEP said in a statement, adding that the results did not accurately express the will of Egyptians.
"We filed more than 500 complaints but no legal action was taken to resist it... which will exacerbate violations during the Shura Council election as violators are awarded with electoral gains and those abiding by the laws are punished."
Local monitors have said Egypt's first free parliamentary vote since army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952 was marred by minor violations that could cast doubt on some constituencies' results, but that these would not undermine the legitimacy of the ballot as a whole.
The violations include party publicity outside voting stations, using religious slogans and isolated reports of judges and employees directing voters to vote for Islamist parties, the monitors said.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has accused Sawiris, a Coptic Christian, of using his media empire to mount a disinformation campaign against them and distort the campaign.
The success of Islamist parties has alarmed Egyptian liberals and some Western governments. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, overthrown by a popular uprising in February, had - like some other Arab leaders - presented himself as a bulwark against Islamist groups.
"I think the election for the People's Assembly (lower house) does reflect the basic trends of public opinion," said Mostafa al-Sayid, politics professor at Cairo University. "This is something the liberals should take seriously into account, otherwise they will not succeed in the coming elections."
Egypt's staggered three-stage parliamentary election began on November 28 and drew an unprecedented voter turnout. The lower house is set to hold its first session on January 23.
Its first task is to appoint a 100-strong constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. Both chambers will have a popular mandate, but the Shura Council tends to have a consultative, advisory role and many politicians have demanded it be scrapped.
"The Shura Council is not seen as a very useful chamber of the parliament and it would have been better to drop this consultative assembly and to save the cost of the election," al-Sayid said.
The FEP also called on the generals who have ruled Egypt since Mubarak's overthrow to cancel the Shura Council election in order to speed up the process of handing power to civilians.