Egypt's ruling military painted a dire picture of the economy on Thursday as election officials delayed releasing results of a landmark parliamentary poll that Islamist parties looked set to win, saying votes were still being counted.

They said first-round results would be declared on Friday, a day when youthful protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule have called a rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square to remember the 42 people killed in clashes with riot police last month.

Egyptians voting freely for the first time since army officers ousted the king in 1952 seem willing to give Islamists a chance. We tried everyone, why not try Sharia (Islamic law) once? asked Ramadan Abdel Fattah, 48, a bearded civil servant.

Islamist success at the polls in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, would reinforce a trend in North Africa, where moderate Islamists now lead governments in Morocco and post-uprising Tunisia after election wins in the last two months.

Parliament, whose exact makeup 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.

The poll results had been expected on Thursday, but some constituencies had not completed their counts.

In an alarming revelation, an 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.

Mahmoud Nasr, financial assistant to army chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, told a news briefing 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.

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.

GAINS FOR ISLAMISTS

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 freedoms and threaten Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest Islamist group, says its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is set to win about 40 percent of seats allocated to party lists in this week's vote, which passed off peacefully, albeit with many irregularities.

FJP officials say the party also leads the race for individual seats that make up a third of the total in the poll.

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

In light of the media campaign against us, we believe our results are largely acceptable, said Youssry Hamad, Nour's spokesman. We are doing as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The liberal multi-party Egyptian Bloc has said it is on track to secure about a fifth of votes for party lists.

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.

He said the infractions observed did not affect the legitimacy of a vote held in a reasonably fair atmosphere.

Egypt's April 6 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 far from 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.

The FJP might seek other partners, such as the liberal Wafd or the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, set up by ex-Brotherhood members in 1996, although only licenced after Mubarak's fall.

Nour Party spokesman Hamad said solving Egypt's problems might be beyond one party. We believe a coalition government that comprises all political streams is the best option. The burden is too much after all these years of corruption.

PERILS OF DEMOCRACY

Some Egyptians fear the Muslim Brotherhood might try to impose Islamic curbs on a tourism-dependent country whose 80 million people include a 10 percent Coptic Christian minority.

Ali Khafagi, the leader of the FJP's youth committee, said the Brotherhood's goal was to end corruption and revive the economy. Only a mad group would try to ban alcohol or force women to wear headscarves, he said.

The priority of the Brotherhood, which gained trust by aiding the poor under Mubarak, is likely to be economic growth to ease poverty and convince voters they are fit to govern.

Essam Sharaf's outgoing government quit during protests against army rule last month in which 42 people were killed, most near Cairo's Tahrir Square, hub of the anti-Mubarak revolt.

Kamal al-Ganzouri, asked by the army to form a national salvation government, aims to complete the task in the next day or two, but acknowledged on Wednesday that five presidential candidates had turned down invitations to join his cabinet.

Protesters who returned to Tahrir last month, angered by the military's apparent reluctance to cede power, say the generals should step aside now, instead of appointing a man of the past like Ganzouri, 78, who was a premier for Mubarak in the 1990s.

Mohamed Taha, 46, an accountant who supports the liberal Egyptian Bloc, said the election showed that young activists had failed to present a viable programme. Their revolution was stolen and they are stuck searching for who stole it, he said.

(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Shaimaa Fayed, Maha El Dayan, Tom Perry and Dina Zayed; Writing by Alistair Lyon, editing by Peter Millership)