Egypt's Islamists look to extend gains
Cairo - Islamist candidates in Egypt on Monday looked to extend their crushing victory in the country's first parliamentary elections since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, as voters turn out for run-off polls.
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% of votes, with the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in first place with 36.6% and the hardline Salafist Al-Nur party in second with 24.4%.
"We welcome the Egyptian people's choice," FJP spokesperson Ahmed Sobea told AFP on Sunday after the publication of results. "Egypt now needs all parties to co-operate together to get it out of its crisis."
The surge in Salafist groups, which advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, was a surprise and raised fears among increasingly marginalised liberals about civil liberties and religious freedom.
In the individual contests, all but four of the 56 seats up for grabs went into a run-off vote being held on Monday because no candidate succeeded in winning an outright majority.
Out of the 52 run-off contests taking place, the Muslim Brotherhood's FJP said it had a candidate in 45 of them, while Al-Nur has 26, meaning they are almost certain to increase their representation in the new assembly.
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.
The Brotherhood's FJP had been widely forecast to triumph in the first free election in decades.
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".
"Since forming our party, it has been the party that worked most on the ground and brought up issues such as education and the economy," Al-Nur's head Emad al-Din Abdel Ghaffour told AFP on Sunday.
There were few bright spots 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 1.29m out of 9.73m votes cast, or 13.4%.
Mohammed Hamed, a candidate with the liberal Free Egyptians party, warned that the Islamists would face widespread resistance if they enforced a strict interpretation of Islam.
"All the people will turn into the opposition. Most Muslims are not extremist," he told AFP.
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.