Egypt: Islamist Election Win Could Bring Showdown with the Military

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Amr Nabil / AP

Banners supporting a Salafi candidate to the Egyptian parliament, Ashraf Mustafa Hussein, hang at a market in Cairo

A cold Wednesday night finds the Salafi Nour Party in a muddied slum in Giza, getting out the vote with a simple message: "We represent one person," booms the voice of Mamdouh Ismail, a candidate for the ultraconservative party, from a podium outside al-Quds Mosque. "That person is Muhammad, peace be upon him. And we will adhere to the ways of our Prophet!"

Ismail's party, champions of a puritanical interpretation of Islam, has been the big surprise of Egypt's first post-Mubarak election, garnering 24% of the first-round popular vote in the nine provinces to cast ballots so far, and running a close second to the more mainstream Islamist Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. And among the deeply conservative and impoverished residents of the slum of Omrania, the Salafis have found plenty of sympathetic ears.

Near the party's big yellow campaign tent, volunteers hand out party fliers and help a long line of residents identify their correct polling stations. With the second round of voting in Egypt's three-phase parliamentary race just a week away, there is little time to waste.

But even if the Salafis lose many of their second-round head-to-head contests with Brotherhood candidates, it's clear from the initial results that Islamist parties, who won a combined 60% in the first round, will be the majority in Egypt's first democratically elected parliament. If anything, their share of the vote will grow, the first round having spanned most of Egypt's more secular and wealthier urban districts, leaving much of conservative rural Egypt to the second and third rounds.

"The real battle was here in Cairo," says Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed, a Giza resident who will vote in phase 2 on Dec. 14. "The liberals are all concentrated in Cairo's wealthy areas. But here in Giza, there are many mosques and it's a very close community." Beyond the capital, he adds, it gets even easier for the Islamists: "In Upper Egypt, the people are very traditional. Religion is taken for granted, so it's taken for granted who they'll vote for — the Islamists."

Despite being formally banned, the Muslim Brotherhood had maintained a presence, through welfare work, among the poor for many years. And hostility to the Mubarak regime's corruption and subordination to U.S. regional strategies had built it a solid base among middle-class professionals. In this election, their battle-tested grassroots organizational machinery has put them streets ahead of all the liberal and secular parties, which were viewed with suspicion by the conservative poor to whom their language and ideologies sounded as "foreign" as that of the old regime.

But if the Brotherhood's dominance had been expected, few predicted the Salafis would sweep second place. "At the end of the day, these people just support Islam," says Mohamed. "And Islam is being represented by the Freedom and Justice Party and also the Salafis."

Not surprisingly, the results have left many of Egypt's liberals and Christians reeling, and fearing for the future. "I think the deal has already been made between the Islamists and SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], and SCAF wants them in power," said Shadi al-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal youth politician whose Awareness party fared poorly. "I think SCAF wants to scare everyone with the Islamists — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis — so that they will push an ex-military figure forward as the next presidential candidate. That will be the true end of the revolution."

The largest liberal coalition, the Egyptian bloc, clinched less than 14% of the votes in last week's race, despite the leading role liberal youth activists had played in the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak last winter. So desperate was their plight that in some districts that Christian voters were said to have cast their runoff votes for the Brotherhood to block the Salafis.

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