Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called on its rivals to accept the will of the people on Saturday after a first-round vote set its party on course to take the most seats in the country's first freely elected parliament in six decades.

The assembly's popular mandate will give it clout to stand up to the generals who have ruled Egypt for nine turbulent months since Hosni Mubarak's removal and who are now scrambling to appoint a new interim government after the last one quit.

Preliminary results showed the Brotherhood's liberal rivals could be pushed into third place behind ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists, mirroring the trend in other Arab countries where political systems have opened up after popular uprisings.

The Brotherhood is Egypt's best-organised political group and popular among the poor for its long record of charity work. Banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, the Brotherhood now wants a role in shaping the country's future.

Rivals accused the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party of handing out cheap food and medicine to influence voters and of breaking election rules by lobbying outside voting stations.

The Brotherhood told its critics to respect the result.

We call upon everyone, and all those who associate themselves with democracy, to respect the will of the people and accept their choice, it said in a statement after the first-round vote, which drew an official turnout of 62 percent.

Those who weren't successful ... should work hard to serve people to win their support next time, the Brotherhood added.

The world is watching the election for pointers to the future in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and one hitherto seen as a firm U.S. ally committed to preserving its peace treaty with Israel and fighting Islamist militancy.

The Brotherhood's political opponents say it seeks to impose sharia Islamic law on a country that has a large Christian minority and depends on welcoming Western tourists.

The movement insists it will pursue a moderate agenda if it wins power and do nothing to damage the tourist industry.

DON'T GIVE UP

Liberal parties lacking the Islamists' grassroots base were trying to avert a landslide in run-off votes set for Monday and in two further rounds of an election staggered over six weeks.

The Egyptian Bloc, an alliance of liberal groups, ran large advertisements in newspapers to appeal for more support.

Don't soften your support for the civil, moderate current to achieve a balanced parliament that represents the Egyptian people, and do not give up your rights, the message read.

With the Brotherhood and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals apparently set for a majority in the assembly, newspapers were debating if they would unite to form a dominant bloc.

Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the Salafi al-Nour Party, told al-Dustour daily that talk of forming a coalition with the Brotherhood was premature and the results of the second and third rounds would determine the possibilities.

All the indications show that the Muslim Brotherhood does not want to inaugurate an alliance with Islamic forces, but rather to conclude a coalition with liberal and secularist forces during the coming parliament, Asem Abdel-Maged, spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, a Salafi group not aligned closely with al-Nour, told al-Dustour.

CONFUSION OVER CABINET

Organisers of last week's vote acknowledged several violations but said they did not affect the results. Elections were routinely rigged during Mubarak's three decades in power.

Parliament was a rubber-stamp for a powerful presidency under Mubarak. Army generals now wield ultimate power, but the popularly elected new assembly is likely to assert itself.

Mass street protests against the army in Cairo and other cities ahead of the vote already forced the generals to concede a faster transfer of power to an elected president.

They also led the government to resign, jolting the army's efforts to bring stability to a country in the throes of an economic crisis and bouts of sectarian and labour unrest.

The new prime minister chosen by the army, Kamal al-Ganzouri, had promised to have his full cabinet lined up by Saturday but the official news agency MENA said he was now having a rethink.

Several names of new ministers filtered into local media over the weekend, and state television listed about a dozen ministers from the outgoing cabinet who would remain.

Political groups opposed keeping three of those ministers in place, including Planning and International Cooperation Minister Faiza Abu el-Naga and Electricity and Energy Minister Hassan Younes, state-owned newspaper al-Ahram reported.

Adding to the confusion, the Finance Ministry issued a statement on Saturday quoting Mumtaz al-Saeed as the new minister even before Ganzouri's cabinet has been unveiled.

It quoted el-Saeed, who was an adviser to outgoing Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, as saying Egypt was not ready for a decision on possible help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cover a ballooning budget deficit.

Beblawi said last month that Egypt would request formal negotiations with the IMF.

(Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Peter Graff)