What will Salafists' election success mean for Egypt?

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

image captionSalafist parties' election wins have surprised many Egyptians

Ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafists, have emerged from the first stage of Egypt's parliamentary election as a powerful political force.

They took 24% of the party-list vote, second only to the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which took 36%.

The Salafists' success has been one of the biggest surprises for their fellow Islamists, as well as liberals and some political analysts.

"It was by the will of God and our efforts," says Sary Galal Ahmed, who was on the list of the largest Salafist party, al-Nour (the Light), in the Maadi neighbourhood of Cairo. "Honestly, I thought we'd do even better. We believe so much in what we're doing."

In the past, Egypt's Salafists - who call for a return to the political and moral practice of the first Muslims, in particular the "righteous ancestors" known as "al-Salaf al-Salih" in Arabic - shunned the concept of democracy, claiming it gave the laws of man precedence over those of God.

However, since the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February, they have turned to electoral politics as a way to try to further incorporate Islamic law, or Sharia, into legislation.

Their parties have attracted wide support among the poor, who identify strongly with conservative religious values.

Egypt's new election law obliges them to include women on their lists, but still the choice of a candidate like Miss Ahmed, a 27-year-old computer science graduate working for a foreign company, is a sign of how Salafist parties have also sought to project a modern image and attracted young professionals.

Miss Ahmed says she was "excited" by al-Nour's platform, and joined with her brother and sisters soon after the party was set up in June. She has handed out flyers and addressed charity associations to which she belongs.

"We have been trying to increase awareness about our programmes, our candidates and our good ethics," she says.

Mermaids and alcohol

In parliament, al-Nour is expected to press a socially conservative agenda, including plans to phase out non-Islamic banking, alcohol sales and revealing swimming costumes on beaches.

Such plans worry other parties, which point out the detrimental effect on the economy and the tourism sector as well as civil liberties.

Egypt's Coptic Christians, already reeling from a recent upsurge in sectarian violence, fear that they will be treated as second-class citizens.

During election campaigning, the Salafists' hard-line interpretation of Islam drew a lot of media attention. A public statue of mermaids was covered up for a rally in Alexandria and there were suggestions that Pharaonic statues should be covered in wax because they were idolatrous.

One al-Nour leader refused to appear on a political talk show until the woman presenter put on a headscarf, while other members of the party have questioned whether women should be banned from driving as in Saudi Arabia.

"These are of course sending shockwaves, statements like that," says Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who plans to run in next year's presidential election.

He called on moderate Islamists to "make clear" such views were "on the extreme fringes and they will not be the mainstream".

Speaking at his office in Maadi, the head of al-Nour, Dr Emad Abdel Ghabbour, says there have been misunderstandings.

"Many people are trying to attach a negative image to this party," the surgeon tells me. "The idea we are against freedom and women's rights, this is not correct."

"Our attitude towards the Copts is completely different from what people are saying," he adds. "We should have tolerance and share social missions. As Egyptians, we should work on building our country without looking at our race, religion or colour."

Dr Abdel Ghabbour has repeated the message to many Western journalists and diplomats.

"We told them that we understand that their countries seek stability and it's the same thing in Egypt," he says.

Islamists' rivalry

While Islamists look set to dominate the next parliament after voting concludes next month, a governing alliance between the two main groups, the Freedom and Justice Party and al-Nour, looks increasingly unlikely.

There is mutual suspicion between the two sides and intense rivalry.

They co-ordinated in some voting districts, but competed head-to head in 24 run-off contests for individual candidates last week, where analysts say liberals appeared to back the FJP.

This helped it win 24 seats of the total 44 awarded, compared to six for Salafist parties.

image captionThe Freedom and Justice Party beat al-Nour in most run-off votes

"When the parliament is set and ready to go I think we'll see different priorities for the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood," says Omar Ashour, a lecturer at Exeter University in the UK.

"The priority for the Brothers is to push for a stronger parliament, and the priority for the Salafists is to show their audience that they're upholding their socially conservative agenda."

"The Muslim Brotherhood know a social agenda is going to be polarising and will harm their international image, so they'll probably be trying to distance themselves from the Salafists," Mr Ashour adds.

Although it was banned under President Mubarak, the Brotherhood gained experience in parliament through members running as independent candidates. It took one-fifth of seats in the lower house, the People's Assembly, in 2005.

The movement's political experience has made it more pragmatic while working towards its long-term goal to make Egypt more Islamic. It has indicated that wants to be part of a centrist coalition sharing the heavy burden of the country's difficult economic and social problems.

Differences between the Brotherhood and the Salafists have given hope to liberals that they may have more influence on a post-election government and efforts to draw up a new constitution.

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