Cairo - Islamists appear poised for a landslide victory in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, putting them on track to secure a majority in the country's first parliament since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak.
Preliminary results leaked on Friday indicate that Islamist parties took at least 65 percent of votes in the opening round of Egypt's three-stage parliamentary election, which began Monday and will conclude in January. The strong showing is an early indication that moderate and hardline Islamists are set to play a pivotal role in shaping the country's post-Mubarak future.
"The next parliament will definitely have a strong Islamist flavour," says Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University.
The scenario was inconceivable just a year ago.
Under Mubarak, suspected members of banned Islamic fundamentalist groups were harassed, arrested and tortured. Since the dictator's downfall in February, Islamists have met openly, appeared on prime time television talk shows, and stormed the mainstream political arena. A number of parties toting an "Islamic frame of reference" are running candidates for the 498 lower house seats up for grabs in this election.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and best organised conservative Islamic group, the landmark election could be a defining moment in the organisation's 83-year history. For the first time since it was founded as an Islamic social movement in 1928, real and significant legislative power lies within its grasp.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood's newly established political wing, dominated the polls in the first round, reportedly winning at least 40 percent of parliamentary seats in the nine provinces that voted this week. The party even managed to pull off decisive victories in Cairo and the Red Sea province, two of the country's most liberal areas.
Pundits had expected the Muslim Brotherhood to make a strong showing. The moderate Islamist movement, which renounced violence long ago in favour of political participation, positioned itself as the party of the poor – a huge constituency in a country where nearly half the population lives in poverty.
Banned from political activities in 1954, the group focused its energy on providing social services, schools and health clinics to fill the gaps left by the derelict state. For decades it bided its time, building networks and preparing for free and fair elections that few thought would ever come.
"If anything, the Muslim Brotherhood was patient," says political analyst Wahid Abdel Naguib. "Its leaders carried out a decades-long hearts and mind campaign; now they're cashing in on the effort."
In 2005 elections, Muslim Brotherhood candidates running as independents won 20 percent of parliamentary seats despite ruling party interference and fraud. This time round, the group appears to have benefitted from the short run-up to parliamentary elections and the court's decision to dissolve its only significant political rival, Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).
"Mubarak's ouster created a political vacuum," says Abdel Naguib.
Egypt's traditional opposition parties were pawns of the regime and lack credibility, while the new liberal and leftist parties announced since the revolution are weak and disorganised, he explains. Only the Muslim Brotherhood has the grassroots support, organisational experience and financial muscle to make a strong showing in this election.
The Muslim Brotherhood appears assured of a dominant role in the next parliament, but its FJP could end up sharing the floor with other Islamist parties cleaved from the movement or influenced by its doctrine. The strongest is the hardline Al-Nour party, which is reported to have captured over 20 percent of the vote in the first round.
Al-Nour is one of several parties established by Salafis, an ultra-conservative Islamic sect that assiduously avoided involvement in the world of secular politics under Mubarak, but now zealously embraces it. The party is competing under an electoral bloc that includes the political wing of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, a group that plotted the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat in 1981 and led an armed insurgency during the 1990s.
The parliament Egyptians vote in will have the power to draft a new constitution and pass legislation that will shape the country's future for years to come. Secular Muslims and minority Coptic Christians fear an Islamist-stacked legislature would impose restrictions on women, ban alcohol, and institutionalise discrimination against non-Muslims. Some accuse Islamists of "hijacking" the revolution to fulfil their long-stated goal of establishing Egypt as a Taliban-style Islamic state.
"Nobody wants to replace Mubarak with a theocratic and authoritarian regime," says Cairo University's Nafaa.
Islamists have tried to reassure citizens that their rise to power would neither harm the country's interests nor curb individual freedoms.
"Some people are promoting the idea that Islamists would diminish women's rights and freedom of speech, damage the country's relationship with Israel and also prevent non-Islamic forces from being politically involved," local news portal Ahram Online quoted a senior Al-Gamaa leader as saying. "Those who say so either have no idea what Islamists are like or (are) deliberately trying to defame them. In all cases, they didn’t clearly affect us in the elections as most constituents gave us their votes."
More than 8.5 million Egyptians, or 62 percent of registered voters, cast ballots in the first round of elections for the lower house of parliament. The second round voting will commence on Dec. 14 in nine provinces. The final round on Jan. 10 will cover the remaining nine provinces.
"We can expect Islamist parties to score even bigger wins as the voting moves into more conservative rural areas," says Abdel Naguib.