Egypt’s Islamists win big in parliament polls, in setback for liberal activists

Egypt's Islamist political parties--including those aligned with the ultra-conservative Salafi wing--are on track to win a majority of seats in Egypt's parliamentary polls, early results indicate. Analysts note that the results represent a broad setback for the liberal and secular pro-democracy activists who took the lead in the Tahrir Square protests that ousted Egypt's Hosni Mubarak early this year, as well as their allies in Washington.

"The party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's mainstream Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 percent of the vote, as expected," the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick reported Thursday. "But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women's participation in voting or public life."

Early returns suggested the Salafi parties may have won as much as 20-25 percent of the seats, analysts said.

Egypt's Islamists appear "to have won big," Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Yahoo News by email Thursday. Cook, too, stressed that while the Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing was expected, "the Salafist results are in one sense a little more surprising only because the [pre-election] polls—as imperfect as they were—suggested that these guys didn't poll more than 3 percent."

Among the looming issues raised by the results, Cook said, are how the new Egyptian government will deal with Washington, which has given hundreds of billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt's over the past three decades. enjoying control over an unexpectedly large bloc of parliamentary seats. The United States has given hundreds of billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt over the past three decades. Also in question going forward, Cook said, will be Cairo's relations with the Jewish state of Israel.

"I do not see how the results do not put pressure on these ties," he said.

Former senior Bush White House official Elliott Abrams was similarly gloomy.

The Islamic Brotherhood's 45 percent return in early election results is in line with the showing of moderate Islamist political parties in recent polls in Tunisia and Morocco, Abrams told Yahoo News by email Thursday.

"But on top of that, the Salafists seem to have gotten 15-20 percent, which did not happen in those countries," Abrams continued. "It cannot be good in any way that the majority of those writing the new Egyptian constitution have uncertain, limited, or zero belief in those principles" of commitment to religious freedom and equality before the law for all citizens.

"If I were an Egyptian Copt, I would be seeking visas right now," Abrams added.

Shibley Telhami, an Arab world public opinion expert at the University of Maryland, said he had expected Egypt's Salafists to win as much as 15% to 20% of the vote. If they indeed won 25% of the vote as some analysts were projecting, it would be a "shocker," he said, in a presentation to the Brookings Institution Thursday.

The early tallies suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood-faction could align itself with ultra-conservative Salafi parliamentarians to achieve a governing majority, rather than with liberal/secular parties, now expected to come in third place, Telhami also said.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood moved on Thursday to downplay such concerns.

"Responding to reports that the two Islamist parties together could form a majority of the new Parliament, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party denied that there was any 'alleged alliance' with the ultraconservative [Salafi] party, Al Nour, to form 'an Islamist government,'" the Times' Kirkpatrick wrote in a subsequent dispatch.

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