Islamist parties captured an overwhelming majority of votes in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, setting up a power struggle with the much weaker liberals behind the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago. A hard-line religious group that wants to impose strict Islamic law made a strong showing with nearly a quarter of the ballots, according to results released Sunday.
The tallies offer only a partial indication of how the new parliament will look. There are still two more rounds of voting in 18 of the country's 27 provinces over the coming month and runoff elections on Monday and Tuesday to determine almost all of the seats allocated for individuals in the first round. But the grip of the Islamists over the next parliament appears set, particularly considering their popularity in provinces voting in the next rounds.
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Amr Moussa, a front-runner for Egypt's presidency, said on Sunday the strong Islamist showing in the first parliamentary election since army generals replaced Hosni Mubarak in February had to be swallowed as democracy in action.
I am happy about the application of the democratic process, the beginning of democracy," said Moussa, a former Mubarak-era foreign minister and secretary general of the Arab League.
"You cannot have democracy and then amend or reject the results," he told Reuters by telephone, adding that the shape of parliament would not be clear until the voting was over.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the Islamist success in the first Arab nation to recognize the Jewish state and to sign a peace treaty with it as "very, very worrisome."
"It is too early to predict how the changes that we face will end up. It could be that in a historical context, they are positive. In an immediate context, they are problematic," he told Israel's Channel Two television on Saturday.
The High Election Commission said the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party garnered 36.6% of the 9.7 million valid ballots cast for party lists. The Nour Party, a more hard-line Islamist group, captured 24.4%.
The strong Islamist showing worries liberal parties, and even some religious parties, who fear the two groups will work to push a religious agenda. It has also left many of the youthful activists behind the uprising that ousted Mubarak in February feeling that their revolution has been hijacked.
Since Mubarak's fall, the groups that led the uprising and Islamists have been locked in a fight over the country's new constitution. The new parliament will be tasked, in theory, with selecting a 100-member panel to draft the new constitution. But adding to tensions, the ruling military council that took over from Mubarak has suggested it will choose 80 of those members, and said parliament will have no say in naming a new government.
"The conflict will be over the soul of Egypt," said Nabil Abdel-Fattah, a senior researcher at the state-sponsored Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, calling the new parliament "transitional" with a "very conservative Islamic" outlook.
Egyptians rally against military rulers (Photo: AP)
The Brotherhood has emerged as the most organized and cohesive political force in these elections. But with no track record of governing, it is not yet clear how they will behave in power. The party has positioned itself as a moderate Islamist party that wants to implement Islamic law without sacrificing personal freedoms, and has said it will not seek an alliance with the more radical Nour party.
The ultraconservative Salafis who dominate the Nour Party are newcomers to the political scene. They had previously frowned upon involvement in politics and shunned elections. They espouse a strict interpretation of Islam similar to that of Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are segregated and women must be veiled and are barred from driving. Its members say laws contradicting religion can't be passed.
A Nour Party spokesman, Yousseri Hamad, suggested over the weekend, for example, that alcohol should be banned and that a state agency could penalize Muslims for eating during the day during the holy month of Ramadan, when the devout fast from dawn to dusk.
Many in Egypt's Coptic Christian population, which makes up 10% of the country, fear the Salafis will push for laws that will make them second-class citizens.
Egypt already uses Islamic law, or Shariah, as the basis for legislation. However, laws remain largely secular as Shariah does not cover all aspects of modern life.
If the Muslim Brotherhood chooses not to form an alliance with the Salafis, the liberal Egyptian Bloc -- which came in third with 13.4% of the votes -- could counterbalance hard-line elements.
It is also unclear how much influence the new parliament will have over Egypt's democratic transition and how long it will even serve.
The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will challenge moves by the military to retain overall control of key aspects of governing and the transition. A strong showing by Islamists in the elections could boost its popular mandate to do so.
The power struggle within parliament could shape up as a fight among the different Islamist trends or between the Islamists and the liberal and secular forces.
The elections, which began Nov. 28, are the first since Mubarak's ouster and the freest and fairest in Egypt's modern history.
Turnout of around 60% was the highest in living memory as few participated in the heavily rigged votes under Mubarak.
The ballots are a confusing mix of individual races and party lists, and the Sunday results only reflect the party list performance for less than a third of the 498-seat parliament.
Another liberal list, the Wafd Party, received 7.1%, while the moderate Islamist Wasat or Centrist Party took 4.3%.
The final shape of the lower house of parliament will not be announced before January. Elections for the less powerful upper house will finish in March.
The next step in the complex process, a round of runoffs between more than 100 individual candidates competing in the first round for around 50 seats, is set for Monday and Tuesday.
AP, Reuters contributed to the report