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 the nine turbulent months since Hosni Mubarak’s removal and who are now scrambling to appoint a new interim government after the last one quit.
Barak: Egypt has "no alternative" but to keep peace
'Muslim Brotherhood wins 40%, Salafists 20% of
awaits poll results, Tahrir protest planned
Preliminary results showed that the Brotherhood’s liberal rivals could be pushed into third place behind ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists, mirroring the trend in other Arab countries where political systems have opened up after popular uprisings.
The Brotherhood is Egypt’s best-organized 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 on the future in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and one hitherto seen as a firm US ally committed to preserving its peace treaty with Israel and fighting Islamist militancy.
In the first high-level Israeli reaction to the Egyptian election, Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Saturday characterized them during a television interview as “very, very worrying.”
“It is too early to predict how the changes before us will turn out,” Barak said on Channel 2’s Meet the Press program. “It may be that in the historic term they are positive. But in the short term they are problematic.”
Barak said he hoped that whatever government emerges in Cairo, with whatever new constitution to be drawn up, “it will understand that in order to sustain the Egyptian economy and provide basic services to its residents, there is no choice but to preserve the framework of international agreements, among them the peace treaty with us.”
Barak added that he hoped Egypt would deal with its weakened control over Sinai. “The Egyptians are making a great deal of efforts dealing with that, but that is definitely a worrisome development,” he said.
Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, had any formal comment on the vote, though one official said Jerusalem was “concerned about the elections in North Africa where the Islamists are coming up on top.”
In addition to Egypt, Islamic parties recently won elections in both Tunisia and Morocco. “We are following these elections with concern because the Islamists are not known for supporting peace and reconciliation,” one official said.
The official said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was stressing in his meetings with foreign leaders that it was important for the international community to relay to Egypt its expectation that any Egyptian government respect and remain committed to the peace with Israel.
Ultimately, the official said, “we think the common strategic interests for peace between Israel and Egypt will, in the end, turn out to be predominant.”
The Brotherhood’s political opponents says it seeks to impose Shari’a law on a country that has a large Christian minority and depends on welcoming Western tourists. The movement insists that it will pursue a moderate agenda if it wins power and will not do anything to damage the tourist industry.
Liberal parties lacking the Islamists’ grassroots base were trying to avert a landslide in runoff voting 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 Salafist rivals apparently set for a majority in the assembly, newspapers were debating if they would unite to form a dominant bloc.
Nader Bakkar, the spokesman for the Salafist 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-Gamaa al-Islamiya, a Salafist group not aligned closely with al-Nour, told al-Dustour.
Organizers of last week’s vote acknowledged several violations but said that 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. Generals now wield ultimate power, but the popularly elected new assembly is likely to assert itself.
Mass street protests against the army 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 labor 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, the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported.
Adding to the confusion, the Finance Ministry issued a statement on Saturday naming Mumtaz al-Saeed as the new minister, even before Ganzouri’s cabinet has been unveiled.
It quoted Saeed, who was an adviser to outgoing Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, as saying that Egypt was not ready for a decision on possible help from the International Monetary Fund to cover a ballooning budget deficit.
Beblawi said last month that Egypt would request formal negotiations with the IMF.