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In Egypt, Islamist gains spark unease

By and Alice Fordham,

CAIRO — Islamist parties were poised Thursday to win a majority of seats in Egypt’s first parliament since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, in an apparent electoral sweep that could mark a conservative shift in the country’s politics.

The moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has long been the most organized opposition group, and its party was expected to do well in the elections that began this week. But a surprising twist has been the strong showing of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, whose emergence as a major player could have profound implications for Egyptian political and cultural life.

While the balloting this week was only the first round in a multi-phase parliamentary vote that will last until March, analysts said the Islamists’ apparent early success reflects the identity-based campaigns that preceded the vote.

“The Salafi ascent is a reaction to the Egyptian Bloc,” said Ibrahim Houdaiby, an analyst and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, referring to the main liberal and secular coalition, which had run advertisements implying that Islamist parties would turn Egypt into “the next Afghanistan.”

“These politicians coalesced around identity, not around policy,” Houdaiby said. “Egyptians were asked a question of identity: Do you want this country to be secular, or do you want it to be Islamic. People chose Islamic.”

Early projections showed the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party taking more than 40 percent of the votes in the nine provinces that voted this week, followed by the the Nour party with anywhere from 10 to 25 percent. Official preliminary results, twice postponed, were still not public Thursday.

‘Cooperation, not conflict’

Speculation now centers on what the newly empowered Freedom and Justice Party will do in the next parliament.

Will it work with centrists, analysts asked, as it has consistently indicated that it would do? Or could its members feel pressure to ally with the more hard-line Salafists, who follow an inflexible form of Islam that limits the role of women and who are likely to advocate a ban on alcohol, over the objections of the tourism industry and liberal Egyptians?

“The Muslim Brotherhood has to make a decision to form an alliance with the Salafi party and create a more Islamist state or try to form a coalition with more liberal elements,” said Marina Ottaway, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Freedom and Justice Party has called for a strong and inclusive parliament and has been quick to point out that two-thirds of the country has yet to vote for the lower chamber, before balloting begins for the upper chamber. It has cited its electoral alliance with liberal parties as a sign of its willingness to be inclusive. And it denied in a statement on its Web site Thursday that it was allied with the Nour party.

“We are looking for cooperation, not conflict,” said Essam el-Erian, the Freedom and Justice Party’s vice president. “There is no absolute majority, and there will be 12 or 13 parties in the parliament.”

Voters worried by the Islamist parties’ strong showing against the notoriously fragmented liberal forces said the results had prompted them to rethink their choices.

“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 Age,” said Hedayat Abdel Nabi, an Egyptian journalist now working on the presidential campaign of Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League. “This is democracy and we have to accept the outcome.”

Nabi said she had planned to vote for a coalition known as Revolution Continues but will now back the Egyptian Bloc, the strongest-performing liberal and leftist grouping.

Grass-roots strategy

Secular, liberal and leftist candidates appeared dejected Thursday, accusing the Brotherhood of influencing uninformed voters outside polling stations on Election Day. But candidates also said they were reevaluating their strategies and considering mimicking the Islamists’ powerful grass-roots campaigns.

“I am not sure whether one should play dirty like the Brotherhood, misleading voters,” said Mahmoud Salem, an activist and blogger turned parliamentary candidate. But he 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 remains unclear what powers the next parliament will actually have. Egypt’s interim military rulers have said it will not have the right to form the next government. They have also floated a controversial draft document of guiding principles for a new constitution, which is to be written by an assembly that the new parliament will appoint. The Freedom and Justice Party has rejected the document as anti-democratic and is demanding real authority for the elected lawmakers.

“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.”

As the first round of voting ended, some liberals were already projecting their own defeat and plotting a strategy as an opposition body and a contender in the next elections.

“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 analyst and editor of the English-language al-Ahram Online Web site. “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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