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Egypt’s liberals regroup as Islamists gain in election

By and Alice Fordham,

CAIRO — In Egypt’s first election since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, Islamists so far have outperformed their more liberal competitors, a sign that Egypt may be in for a dramatic shift in its religious tenor.

Preliminary results leaked to state media and projections by political parties show that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and, surprisingly, the more conservative Salafi Nour Party are leading in the polls, as liberal and secular groups struggle to keep up. Former members of Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party are projected to do poorly at this point, despite earlier concerns among Mubarak opponents that the party would try to retake power through the elections.

Authorities later announced that the results of the initial voting, previously scheduled to be released Thursday evening, would instead be made public on Friday.

“What we’re seeing now is the end of the Mubarak regime,” said Marina Ottaway, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Up until this moment, there were suspicions that the NDP would come back. . . . What is unexpected is the strong success of the Salafi Party.”

This is only the first stage of voting in a multi-phase election — scheduled to last until March — for the upper and lower chambers of parliament. But already the Salafi Nour Party has taken 82 percent of votes in one polling station in Alexandria and seems to have done similarly well across the conservative coastal city and in other parts of the country, according to state media.

Now, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes it has taken more than 40 percent of the votes so far, could be in a position to decide the tone of the next parliament by allying with more conservative forces to form a dominant Islamist bloc or by reaching out to less popular liberal forces.

However, because of the strong showing of the Salafis, the Brotherhood may feel pressured into forming an alliance with the more rigid Islamists, Ottaway said

“In the end, the liberal groups are not popular and not organized,” she said.

Liberal voters who will go to the polls in the next stages of voting said the worrying results were prompting them to rethink their choices. The biggest failing of liberal forces is that they are divided across dozens of parties. Some people said they would gravitate toward the strongest-performing liberal and leftist coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, to counter the Islamists’ success.

“Now we know what is ahead of us, and we have to get our act together so we don’t go back to the stone ages,” said Hedayat Abdel Nabi, an Egyptian journalist who works on the presidential campaign of Amr Moussa, a former secretary general of the Arab League.

Nabi said she had planned to vote for the secular alliance called The Revolution Continues but would now back the Egyptian Bloc.

Liberal candidates were dejected Thursday, accusing the Brotherhood of influencing voters on Election Day through information tables set up outside polling stations. Some also said the huge turnout was only a reaction to the nearly $100 fine that the government threatened to levy on people who did not vote. Many voters did not know the parties and individual candidates because of the short campaigning time.

“I am not sure whether one should play dirty like the Brotherhood, misleading voters or buying votes,” said Mahmoud Salem, an activist and blogger turned parliamentary candidate. “I think [the liberal parties] are wondering if this is what they should do at this point.”

Salem added: “The majority of the new parties did not have time to establish good grass-roots movements. What they need to do is operate more with volunteers, learn their lessons and work harder.”

It is still unclear what powers the next parliament will actually have. The military chiefs, the interim rulers of Egypt, said the body would not have the right to form the next government. They also floated a controversial draft document of guiding principles to shape the constitution, which has so far not been implemented. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party rejected the document as anti-democratic and demanded real authority for the elected parliament, including the right to form the next government.

“The new parliament will be made up of all the national forces,” said Mahmoud el-Khodairy, an independent candidate in Alexandria backed by the Freedom and Justice party. “The military council cannot control a civilian authority.”

After the first round of voting, some liberals were already projecting their own defeat and plotting a strategy as an opposition body and a contender for victory in Egypt’s next election.

“The Islamists were the most prepared, best organized, best financed; they had to come to power in one sense or another,” said Hani Shukrallah, a liberal political analyst and chief editor of Ahram Online. “The coming years will see their decline. I think they will be put to the test. It will no longer be an ideological battle of identity.”

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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