Islamist set to sweep initial Egypt elections

Official results delayed again; Muslim Brotherhood expected to receive largest share of votes, fundamentalist Salafists could be second.

December 2, 2011 07:54
FJP, Egypt

freedom and justice party, Egypt_311. (photo credit: Reuters)

Islamists appeared set to win a solid majority of seats in Egypt’s first free parliamentary election in decades, but results were delayed for the second day after officials said not all ballots had been counted.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamist group, said its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was 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. Other estimates have put the Brotherhood’s take at close to 50% or even 60%.

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Egyptians must wait another day for poll results
Muslim Brotherhood says it leads Egypt's vote count

The elections’ most unanticipated result, however, came from religious fundamentalist Salafist parties, which some predict will take as many as a quarter of all votes despite having been nonexistent just a year ago.

“People are surprised at how strong the Islamists are showing,” Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the US-based Century Foundation, told The Jerusalem Post from Cairo. “We don’t know final results yet....

We know Islamists will do very well, but the final picture is murky.”

According to Hanna, “It’s the Salafists who are a real, new political force. They won’t run or rule the country, but they’ll have a real say.”

First-round results had originally been scheduled to be released on Wednesday, and then on Thursday, but were pushed off to Friday after officials said results from some districts had not been fully counted.

Meanwhile, young protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule have called a rally for Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to remember the 42 people killed in clashes with riot police last month.

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

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, so why not try Shari’a once?” asked Ramadan Abdel Fattah, a bearded civil servant.

Parliament, the exact makeup of which 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.

Al-Nour, one of several newly formed fundamentalist Salafist parties, said on Thursday that it expects to pick up 20% of assembly seats overall.

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

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

Western nations 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.

“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 EUbacked 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 Al-Nour secure the number of seats they expect, they could combine to form a solid majority bloc, although it remains unclear whether the Brotherhood would want such an alliance.

Senior FJP official Essam el- Erian said before the vote that Salafists, 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 comparatively liberal Wafd or the Islamist Wasat Party, set up by ex-Brotherhood members in 1996 but only licensed after Mubarak’s fall.

Al-Nour’s spokesman said solving Egypt’s problems might be beyond the capabilities of 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,” he said.

Some Egyptians fear the Muslim Brotherhood might impose Islamic curbs on a tourism-dependent country whose 82 million people include a 10% 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. A party would have to be “mad” try to ban alcohol or force women to wear head scarves, he said.

The priority of the Brotherhood is likely to be economic growth to ease poverty and convince voters it is fit to govern.

Essam Sharaf’s outgoing government quit during protests against army rule last month in which 42 people were killed, most near Tahrir Square, the 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.

Presidential elections are scheduled for June, after which the ruling army council is expected to step down.

Still, few expect the military to relinquish the privileges it has enjoyed for the better part of six decades.

“They want to run the show where it matters to them,” Hanna said. “They do want to be written in the constitution, and much of that hinges on budgetary independence and [avoiding] civilian oversight.”

Following elections, the lower house of parliament will form a 100-member constitution- drafting assembly that the military hopes will let it avoid civilian oversight of its budget.

Hanna said the army had little interest in ruling in full glare of the public, and every interest in retiring behind the scenes.

“They simply want to go back to the shadows and protect their influence and interests,” he said.

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