'Israel worried over Islamist gains in Egypt'

But J'lem respects elections, Barak says; Islamists seek gains in run-off vote; 52 of 56 individual candidate seats still up for grabs.

December 5, 2011 18:28
Egyptian woman voting

Egyptian woman voting 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori )

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday that while Israel "respects" the elections in Egypt and the Middle East, it is worried about the trend and hopes Islamist groups with new-found power will abide by international agreements.

We want to respect what is happening" in Egypt, Barak said. "However, I can't say we aren't worried about the phenomenon of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Middle Eastern countries."

"I hope that they understand, that it is in their best financial and diplomatic interests to honor current international agreements," he continued, urging the Muslim Brotherhood to align itself with moderates, not more extreme groups.

Egyptians voted on Monday in run-off contests for parliamentary seats, with the Muslim Brotherhood's party trying to extend its lead over hardline Islamists and liberal parties in a political landscape redrawn by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Analysis: Muslim Brothers victory all but assured
The Region: What next for Egypt?

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is set to take the most seats in Egypt's first free election in six decades, strengthening its hand in a possible struggle with the ruling army council for influence over the most populous Arab nation.

Formally banned from politics until a popular uprising ended Mubarak's three-decade rule in February, the movement emerged as the main winner from last week's first-round vote and called on its rivals to "accept the will of the people".

Its stiffest competition has come from the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour Party. Alexandria, Egypt's second city, was expected to see some of the tightest races between the two parties in the run-off votes for individual candidates.

The phased election runs over six weeks, ending in January, and is part of a lengthy transition to civilian rule in July after a presidential election in June.

The rise of the Salafis has sparked fear among many ordinary Egyptians because of their uncompromising insistence that strict sharia (Islamic law) should govern all aspects of society.

The more pragmatic Brotherhood appears unlikely to ally with Salafis who only recently ventured from preaching into politics.

"The Salafis are abiding by sharia... while the Brotherhood play politics," said Amin Ibrahim, 38, a print worker voting in Alexandria, regarded as a stronghold of Islamists.

Nour Party leader Emad Abdel Ghaffour made it clear he would not play second fiddle to the Brotherhood.

"We hate being followers," Ghaffour told Reuters in an interview. "They always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision... There might be a consensus but... we will remain independent."

Voting got off to a slow start in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, in contrast to the early queues at polling stations in last week's election, when officials put turnout at 52 percent, although authorities had said earlier that turnout was 62%.

Some polling breaches reported but elections largely proceed smoothly

Opponents accuse the Brotherhood's slick campaign machine of flouting a ban on canvassing near polling stations and say it handed out food and medicine to secure votes, but monitors said first-round polling seemed fair, despite many irregularities.

Egypt's election committee listed shortcomings such as polling stations opening late, ballot forms not arriving on time and parties campaigning at polling stations, but said these did not invalidate the vote and would not recur in later rounds.

Nour Party campaigners began distributing flyers outside a school being used as a voting station in Alexandria, but an army officer asked them to leave and move away from the station.

Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief who is now a front-runner for Egypt's presidency, said the early Islamist gains at the polls had to be accepted.

"You cannot have democracy and then amend or reject the results," he told Reuters, adding that the shape of parliament would not be clear until voting was over in January.

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Under a complex system, two-thirds of the 498 elected lower house seats go proportionately to party lists, with the rest going to individual candidates, who must win more than 50 percent of votes in the first round to avoid a run-off.

Only four seats were won outright in the first round, leaving 52 to be decided in run-off voting on Monday and Tuesday, with 24 of them contested between the FJP and Nour.

The Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organized political group and popular with the poor for its charity work, wants to shape a new constitution to be drawn up next year.

That could be the focus of a power struggle with the ruling military council, which wants to keep a presidential system, rather than the parliamentary one favored by the Brotherhood.

Figures released by the election committee show a list led by the FJP securing 36.6 percent of valid party-list votes in last week's polls, followed by Nour's Salafi list with 24.4 percent, and the liberal Egyptian Bloc with 13.4 percent.

The result has unnerved Israel, concerned about the fate of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Egypt's future rulers to preserve the deal.

"We hope any future government in Egypt will recognize the importance of keeping the peace treaty with Israel in its own right and as a basis for regional security and economic stability," Netanyahu said on Sunday.

The future of the peace deal between Egypt and Israel is a concern for its sponsor, the United States, which has backed it with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.

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