Islamist party takes the lead in Egyptian election

CAIRO — Islamist parties appeared to have swept the first round of elections for an Egyptian parliament that is likely to erase the secular rule of Hosni Mubarak with a politics more intensely driven by religion.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was projected to have won at least 40 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results leaked by election judges. That margin indicates that the group, whose religious rigor and social programs bolstered it for decades against a repressive police state, is emerging as Egypt’s most potent political force.

Official results were scheduled to be released Thursday. The election commission delayed the announcement until today, saying a larger than expected turnout slowed ballot counting.

It was too early — and confusing — to predict what would unfold over the next six weeks in a multi-stage parliamentary contest. The unofficial results were from nine of the nation’s 27 governorates — including Cairo and Alexandria, the two most populous cities. But they suggest that Egyptians, voting in their first free elections in more than 50 years, want a government imbued with Islamic law.

Brotherhood members were jubilant at a political legitimacy the organization has been denied since it was founded by an activist school teacher in 1928.

This means the Freedom and Justice Party “is capable of winning a majority of the incoming parliament and forming a government,” said Mohamed Mursi, the party’s chairman.

That sense of victory echoes in prominent voices across the Middle East and North Africa following the upheavals of the “Arab Spring.” The moderate Islamic Nahda Party dominated Tunisia’s elections in October and Islamists in Libya are demanding a more pious nation than envisioned by the late Moammar Gadhafi. These elements are hardening the Arab world’s attitudes toward the U.S. and Israel.

Islamists are in a “pole position to win a considerable share of power in the Arab Spring,” said Mustafa Kamal Sayed, a political scientist at Cairo University. “Many Arab countries tried socialism, communism and capitalism and none of them worked well in the eyes of the people.”

He added: “So now the people are inclined to give Islamists a chance.”

The prowess by the Brotherhood and the surprisingly strong showing by the ultraconservative Salafi al-Nour Party, which is projected to finish second with 20 percent of the vote, worried liberals and secularists that Islamists will set the country’s agenda, including the drafting of a constitution. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of secular parties headed by Naguib Sawiris, a Christian telecommunications billionaire, was expected to come in third.

“Egyptians have never practiced real democracy … and Islamists have lured thousands of voters under the name of religion,” said Abdel Rahman Samir, an activist and former member of the Jan. 25 Youth Coalition. “I fear some Islamists regard their religious agendas with much a higher importance than the interests of the country.”

The realigning of the established order will sweep political neophytes into government at a time Egypt faces massive economic and social problems. Mubarak purged Islamist groups and denied them political rights. Now, leading Salafi figures, such as Abdel Monem Shahat, who is expected to win his parliament race, also appear to have little regard for civil liberties. He has said Islam forbids democracy and he reportedly told his supporters they will go to heaven if they vote for him.

Such comments have unnerved secularists.

The second round of voting will begin Dec. 14, followed by the third round Jan. 10. Final results for the new parliament are expected a few days later.

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