by Ben Hubbard and Maggie Michael
Cairo: Anticipating a strong presence in the new Egyptian parliament, ultraconservative Islamists have outlined plans for a strict brand of religious law, a move that could limit personal freedoms and steer a key US ally toward an Islamic state.
Egypt's election commission on Friday announced only a trickle of results from the first round of parliamentary elections and said 62 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the highest turnout in modern history.
However, leaked counts point to a clear majority for Islamist parties at the expense of liberal activist groups that led the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, toppling a regime long seen as a secular bulwark in the Middle East.
The more pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take the largest share of votes, as much as 45 percent. But the Nour Party, which espouses a strict interpretation of Islam in which democracy is subordinate to the Quran, could win a quarter of the house, giving it much power to affect debate.
A spokesman, Yousseri Hamad, said his party considers God's law the only law.
"In the land of Islam, I can't let people decide what is permissible or what is prohibited," Hamad told. "It is God who gives the answers as to what is right and what is wrong."
The Nour Party is the main political arm of the hard-line Salafist Muslim movement, which espouses a strict form of Islam similar to that practiced in Saudi Arabia. Salafis, who often wear long beards and seek to imitate the life of the Prophet Muhammad, speak openly about their aim of turning Egypt into a state where personal freedoms, including freedom of speech, women's dress and art, are constrained by Islamic law — goals that make many Egyptians nervous.
Salafis object to women in leadership roles, citing Muhammad as saying that "no people succeed if led by women." However, when election regulations forced all parties to include women, Salafi cleric Yasser el-Bourhami relented, saying that "committing small sins" is better than "committing bigger ones" — by which he meant letting secular people run the government.
In the end, the party put women at the bottom of its lists, represented by flowers since women's photos were deemed inappropriate.
This week, Salafi cleric and parliamentary candidate Abdel-Monem Shahat caused a stir by saying the novels of Egypt's Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, read widely in Egyptian schools, are "all prostitution."
Salafis are newcomers on Egypt's political scene. They 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, seeking to enshrine Islamic law in Egypt's new constitution.
By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized political group, was officially banned under Mubarak but established a nationwide network of activists who built a reputation for offering services to the poor. After Mubarak's fall, the group's Freedom and Justice Party campaigned fiercely, their organization and name-recognition giving them a big advantage over newly formed liberal parties.
Stakes are particularly high since the new parliament is supposed to oversee writing Egypt's new constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country when Mubarak fell, has tried to impose restrictions on membership in the 100-member drafting committee. The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will challenge the move, and a strong showing by Islamists in the elections could boost its popular mandate to do so.
Hamed, the Nour Party spokesman, said democracy can't pass laws that contradict religion.
"We endorse Egyptian democracy," he said. "However, I don't give absolute freedom to people to legislate to themselves and decide on what is right or wrong.
"We have God's laws that tell us that."
He suggested, 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.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have both cooperated and disagreed in the past.
They tried to form an electoral alliance, which broke down over disagreements about including Christians and women in their electoral lists. However, the two parties campaigned together in some areas and declined to contest certain seats so as not to split the Islamist vote and allow liberal candidates to win.
The strong Islamist showing worries liberal parties who fear the two groups will work to push a religious agenda. It has also caused many youth activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising to feel that their revolution has been hijacked. Still, the liberal Egyptian Bloc coalition, which is competing with the Salafis to be the second-largest parliamentary bloc, could counterbalance hard-line elements.
Cooperation between the Brotherhood and Salafis in parliament isn't guaranteed, said Shadi Hamid, Middle East expert with the Brookings Doha Center. The Brotherhood is a pragmatic organization that will work with other parties to achieve its goals, while the Salafis shun compromise.
Once the parliament is seated, Hamid expects the Brotherhood to focus on establishing a strong parliamentary system, reforming state institutions and boosting the economy — goals they share with liberal groups.
"Banning alcohol or passing laws on women's dress are not on their priority list, and they see these issues as a distraction from the issues at hand," he said.
Still, a strong Salafist bloc in parliament will have a "massive effect," he said, by giving the group a larger platform for its views.
"The Salafis are going to insert religion into the public debate in a way that would not have happened otherwise," he said.
Many in Egypt's Coptic Christian population, which makes up 10 percent of the country, fear the Salafis will push for laws that will make them second-class citizens.
Even some religious Egyptians see the Salafi as too extreme.
"I am religious and don't want laws that go against my beliefs, but there shouldn't be religious law," said Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a geography teacher. "I don't want anyone imposing his religious views on me."
The election commission said Friday that more than 8 million eligible voters — 62 percent — participated in the first round. But it announced final results in only a few races. It remains unclear when complete final results will be released.
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.
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