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Islamists look to extend gains in Egypt

05 december 2011, 16:01
A man and a woman ride a scooter down a street as a man walking into an alley is seen reflected in the marble wall of a shop at a market in Cairo. ©AFP
A man and a woman ride a scooter down a street as a man walking into an alley is seen reflected in the marble wall of a shop at a market in Cairo. ©AFP
Islamist candidates in Egypt looked Monday to extend their crushing victory in the country's first parliamentary elections since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, as voters turned out for run-off polls, AFP reports.

Last week, residents in a third of districts including Cairo and second-city Alexandria cast ballots at the start of the multi-stage polls, choosing a party and two candidates for a new 498-seat lower house of parliament.

In the party returns, Islamists picked up at least 65 percent of votes, with the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in first place with 36.6 percent and the hardline Salafist Al-Nur party in second with 24.4 percent.

In the individual contests, all but four of the 56 seats up for grabs went into a run-off vote being held on Monday, with about 20 of them being contested between an FJP and an Al-Nur candidate.

"Whatever happens, the importance is that an Islamist wins," said a woman dressed in black and wearing a veil that revealed only her eyes as she handed out pamphlets for Al-Nur on Monday in the port city of Alexandria.

The surge in Salafist groups, which advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, has raised fears among increasingly marginalised liberals about civil liberties and religious freedom.

Voter turnout for the run-offs seemed far below the 62-percent level seen last Monday and Tuesday, when queues had formed early in the morning outside polling stations.

In the wealthy neighbourhood of Zamalek in Cairo, one of the few liberals to escape the decimation of last week's voting, Mohammed Abu Hammad, was locked in a battle with a Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

"I voted for Hammad. If he doesn't win here, I don't know where liberals will win," Amr al-Gidawi, a corporate lawyer, told AFP at a school where voters were trickling in.

Out of the 52 run-off contests taking place, the Muslim Brotherhood's FJP said it had a candidate in 47 of them, while Al-Nur has 26, meaning they are almost certain to increase their representation in the new assembly.

The Brotherhood's FJP had been widely forecast to triumph in the first free election in decades taking place 10 months after the toppling of Mubarak who stepped down in the face of 18 days of street protests.

It is the country's most organised political group despite being officially banned for decades and is well known for its charity work and opposition to Mubarak's 30-year regime.

Leaders were at pains to stress during campaigning that they were committed to multi-party democracy, inclusiveness and civil liberties, while also advocating the application of sharia law.

But the newcomer Salafist parties formed after Mubarak's fall trailed them only slightly in the city of Alexandria and won a majority in northern Kafr el-Sheikh and Damietta provinces.

Followers of the hardline strain of Islam advocate a stricter segregation of the sexes, the full veiling of women and a ban on alcohol.

Parliamentary candidate Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat last week raised hackles when he accused the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel prize winner, of "inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism."

Sunday also brought news of the first violence since voting began when the driver of a liberal candidate died in a gunfight with supporters of the moderate Al-Wasat party in the northern Manufia province, local reports said.

The build up to the election had been ominous, with 42 people killed and more than 3,000 injured in violent protests against the interim military regime that is overseeing the country's transition to democracy.

There were few bright spots in last week's voting for the liberal secular movement which played a key role in the 18-day uprising that led Mubarak to stand down and hand power to a council of army leaders.

The main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, won just 1.29 million out of 9.73 million votes cast, or 13.4 percent.

The results in Egypt fit a pattern established in Tunisia and Morocco where Islamists have also gained in elections as they benefit from the new freedoms brought by the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring.

Israel, which shares a border and peace agreement with Egypt, expressed deep concern over the trend.

"We are worried," Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday, adding that he hoped Egypt "won't become an extremist Islamist state because that would put the whole region in danger."

Voting last Monday and Tuesday was only the opening phase of an election that will see the remaining two-thirds of districts go to the polls later this month and in January. Final results are due January 13.

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