Ultraconservative Islamists make gains in Egypt

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 2 2011 9:10 a.m. MST

A wounded Egyptian protesters attends Friday prayers during a rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Islamists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.

Bernat Armangue, Associated Press

CAIRO — Egypt's ultraconservative Islamist party plans to push for a stricter religious code in Egypt after claiming surprisingly strong gains in the first round of parliamentary elections, a spokesman said Friday.

Final results are to be announced later in the day, but preliminary counts have been leaked by judges and individual political groups.

Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give the religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.

Spokesman Yousseri Hamad says the Salafi Nour party expects to get 30 percent of the vote. Their party appeared to lead the polls in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheik, in the rural area of Fayoum, which is known for high rates of illiteracy and poverty, and in parts of their longtime stronghold of Alexandria.

Hamad also said the party faced its toughest challenge in Cairo because of the small presence of Salafi supporters there.

The strong showing would put them in a strong position to influence policy, although it's unclear how much power the new parliament will have with the ruling generals still in power.

Hamad said that his party is willing to cooperate with the rest of the secular, liberal and Islamist forces, "if it will serve the interest of the nation."

This week's vote, held in nine provinces, will determine about 30 percent of the 498 seats in the People's Assembly, parliament's lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt's other 18 provinces.

The new parliament, in theory, is tasked with selecting a 100-member panel to draft Egypt's new constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country after Mubarak's fall in February, has suggested that it will choose 80 of those members.

The Nour Party is the main political arm of the hard-line Salafi movement, which unlike the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood is a new player on Egypt's political scene.

Inspired by the Saudi-style Wahhabi school of thought, Salafists have long shunned the concept of democracy, saying it allows man's law to override God's. But they formed parties and entered politics after Mubarak's ouster to position themselves to make sure Shariah law is an integral part of Egypt's new constitution.

Salafi groups speak confidently about their ambition to turn Egypt into a state where personal freedoms, including freedom of speech, women's dress and art are constrained by Islamic Shariah codes.

"In the land of Islam, I can't let people decide what is permissible or what is prohibited. It's God who gives the answers as to what is right and what is wrong," Hamad said. "If God tells me you can drink whatever you want except for alcohol, you don't leave the million things permitted and ask about the prohibited."

Their surprisingly strong showing worries many liberals and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population.

"We want democracy and what they want is anything but democratic," said Amir Fouad, a Coptic Christian who trained as an engineer but drives a taxi because he can't find another job. "They want Egypt to be like Saudi Arabia, all Islamic."

Fouad, 40, said he worries the Salafists will force Christian women to wear Islamic veils.

"I feel like it will be very hard for me to live in Egypt if they rule," he said. "They will take Egypt backward."

Even some religious Egyptians see the Salafists as too extreme.

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