Islamists elected to dominate Egyptian parliament

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2012 

CAIRO — Islamists won a combined 72 percent of parliamentary seats in the first election after Egypt's revolution, according to official 2esults Saturday that cemented the victory of rival religious parties belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Salafists.

More than 10 million Egyptians cast votes for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, handing it 47 percent of the parliament. But the lack of an outright majority means the FJP must build alliances, most likely with established liberal parties, to keep the focus on issues such as economic initiatives and the transfer of power from Egypt's interim military rulers.

The goal, politicians involved in negotiations said, would be to isolate the upstart Salafist Nour Party, which won a surprising 25 percent of seats. It advocates the immediate application of strict Islamic law. The Salafists' literal interpretation of Islam is anathema to the Brotherhood and liberal parties alike, not to mention alarming to Egypt's Western allies and foreign investors.

"The fears and concerns over Islamists are legitimate, not only because they are Islamists, but more importantly because we have not tried them before," said Khalil al Anani, a United Kingdom-based scholar of Islamist movements. "However, overestimating these fears can blow the whole transition process."

Liberal Egyptians said fear naturally accompanies the rise of the Salafists, a group whose clerics have espoused bans on alcohol and bikinis, and tacitly support self-appointed morality squads that harass unveiled women or unmarried couples. The Nour Party has hedged its stand toward such puritanical stances, but makes no secret of its goal for the application of Sharia law.

A group of Egyptian artists - including some of the country's top painters, novelists and playwrights - are unconvinced that the Brotherhood can rein in the Salafists, so they've formed a coalition to defend intellectuals from what they fear will be inevitable attacks on freedom of expression.

"They are waving a flag now, saying they are here," said the Egyptian novelist Fathi Soliman, who's part of the artists' coalition. "But if they implement severe actions, they can expect a severe response."

International monitors have praised the elections for running relatively smoothly, although they found lax adherence to campaign laws and a near-total lack of women among the new political elite.

After the Brotherhood party's 47 percent and Nour's 25 percent, the next biggest winners were electoral slates belonging to the historic liberal Wafd Party, with around 11 percent, and the secular Egyptian Bloc coalition with about 10 percent. The moderate Islamist Wasat party won 3 percent, trailed by the Revolution Continues bloc with 2 percent.

With so many competing ideologies, analysts say, the Brotherhood must live up to its reputation for pragmatism by setting an agenda that will address faltering revolutionary goals, keep extremists contained, revive tourism and hasten a smooth transition to civilian rule. And that's in addition to parliament's main charge: picking the drafters of a new constitution.

"This is the legacy left to us by the former regime," said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a senior Brotherhood spokesman and member of its governing council. "We'll be facing extreme challenges as soon as we take office. Even when the parliament convenes, we still won't know yet what will happen with the current government."

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has delegated administrative duties to a handpicked cabinet led by Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, a former premier under deposed President Hosni Mubarak who's in his late 70s. Brotherhood leaders have said that parliament, as Egypt's only elected body so far, should wield more authority than the unelected cabinet ministers who answer to Ganzouri and the generals.

Though allied with the military council for the short-term goal of timely elections, senior Brotherhood leaders have hinted at plans to challenge the generals' hold on Egypt's transition period. The Islamists are upset with the military for backsliding on human rights promises in a series of attacks that killed or maimed dozens of young Egyptians. And there's no progress on seemingly simple reforms such as repealing the emergency law, which allows for arbitrary raids and arrests.

"If they are partners in the revolution, why haven't they filled any of the long list of demands?" Ghozlan said of the generals. "If you're a real partner, you have to act like one."

The military council has promised to hand over power after presidential elections in June, but some incoming Islamist legislators already are pushing for more authority in the interim.

If the Brotherhood returns to its stances from the uprising - chiefly, the call for an elected, civilian government - that could improve the way other revolutionaries view it. The Brotherhood's reputation faltered when it failed to support protesters in deadly battles with security forces.

For the past year, even non-Islamists who've allied with the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party have been accused by other revolutionaries of selling out for supporting a group that's seen as working secretly with the military.

The Arab nationalist Karama Party, for example, won six seats in parliament only because it joined the FJP-led ticket, but members now regret throwing in with the Brotherhood and feel they were used as token liberals to detract from the Islamist agenda.

"It turned out not to be the right decision, and it caused lots of problems within the party," said Mohamed Sami, Karama's secretary-general. "The affiliation was between a very powerful party that's operated all over Egypt for many years and a small party with limited resources. It wasn't a balanced relationship."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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