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As expected, Islamists take lead in Egypt's first voting round

CAIRO — Islamists appeared poised to play a leading role in Egypt's first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, according to partial election results released Friday from the first round of polling earlier this week.

There are still runoffs and two more stages of voting in the race for Egypt's 498-seat lower house of Parliament, whose main charge will be helping to pick drafters of a new constitution. So far, however, Egypt's two largest Islamist blocs — the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by the more fundamentalist Salafists — were leading the first round, according to official tallies.

Egypt's High Election Commission began announcing the official results Friday at a news conference in Cairo, but the process was so long and tedious that commission chief Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim abruptly stopped on live television, explaining that he'd "run out of gas." The full results were released online late Friday in a raw data format that didn't easily signal trends. Some political analysts crunched the numbers and released percentages confirming Islamists at the forefront, as predicted.

The top vote-getters were the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, with 40 percent, followed by the Salafists' Nour Party, with 20 percent, and a liberal coalition known as the Egyptian Bloc with 15 percent, according to the official figures as interpreted by al Jazeera's online operation.

"We reflected the characteristics of the Egyptian people, we work with the people and among them, and they trust us. We reached their hearts," said Nader Bakkar, a senior spokesman for the Nour Party, whose showing was a major surprise for the rigid Islamists who once shunned political life.

"Liberals, on the other hand, are always on TV shows and in political fights. They never reached out to the people, and therefore the people did not vote for them," Bakkar said. "We are closer to the street than the liberals are or ever have been."

Even without the full results parsed, Egypt's liberals immediately sounded alarms, voicing concern on talk shows and in speeches that an Islamist-dominated Parliament would seek to curtail civil rights and govern the country through strict Islamic laws. Their worries are echoed in the West; some U.S. congressmen seek to cut Egypt's annual $1.3 billion aid package should the Muslim Brotherhood come to power.

Islamist groups have experienced similar gains — and suspicions — in other North African nations where popular uprisings unseated authoritarian rulers in this year's Arab Spring. Islamists swept the recent parliamentary elections in Tunisia, then mitigated fears by immediately reaching out to secular rivals. In Libya, Islamist politicians and militia commanders are at the vanguard of the transition from four decades of Moammar Gadhafi's autocracy.

Islamists in Egypt dismissed criticisms of their motives and said they hoped to work closely with their liberal and centrist opponents on a common goal: ending military rule. Whatever its final makeup, the incoming Parliament will wield little power, answering to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control after Mubarak's resignation last February.

The council's newly appointed caretaker prime minister, Kamal el Ganzouri, unveiled his unelected Cabinet on Friday. The names were mostly reshuffled holdovers from the previous interim body, reportedly because political elites shied away from serving in a Cabinet that's under military command and enormous public pressure.

The Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentarians-elect are expected to push hard to curtail military powers and expand lawmakers' role in managing the transitional period. Political analysts expect a quick fraying of the mutually beneficial Brotherhood-council partnership that forced the elections to go on as scheduled just days after a spasm of violence that left 40 people dead and 3,500 wounded.

"If the appointed government is incompetent and doesn't represent the people, if we don't agree to its budget and policies, there will be a reaction from the Parliament," warned Mohammed el Beltagi, a senior Brotherhood figure and a candidate in the second round of voting.

Other leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party said liberals' anger over the results showed the same kind of double standard that the United States had been accused of for years in the Middle East: promoting democracy except in elections won by Islamists.

Amr Darrag, who heads the Freedom and Justice Party for Giza province, said he had two pieces of advice for skeptics of the Brotherhood: "Accept the rules of democracy" and "Watch our performance."

Darrag said the party welcomed scrutiny of its parliamentary conduct and would expect to be booted out in the next election if it failed to deliver. But for now, he added, Egypt's liberals should respect the vote if they truly believe in a democratic future. Anti-Islamist "hysteria," he said, will only hinder the country's progress.

"In order to be a democrat or a liberal, you have to abide by the rules of democracy and liberalism," Darrag said. "When you listen to the Brotherhood these days, you'll find them sounding more democratic than the liberals."

Despite the backdrop of fresh violence and political stalemate, voting went mostly smoothly Monday and Tuesday in Cairo, the port city of Alexandria and other urban centers.

Only minor violations were reported and would be investigated, members of Egypt's election commission said. The most common complaints, according to the commission, were campaigning too close to polls, late arrivals of judges and ballots, and long lines that made voting difficult for the elderly and people with disabilities.

More than 8.4 million people voted, for a record turnout of 62 percent, the commission announced. That figure is said to be far higher than any turnout under Mubarak, whose notoriously rigged elections sowed apathy. The commission said close results required runoffs in 20 districts.

"Those people we chose for Parliament are our connections to the council, the coming president, writing a constitution and solving our issues," said Karim Magdy, 34, an architect, explaining why he voted. "If they don't please us, we can still protest and dissolve this Parliament the same way we did the Mubarak Parliament in January and February. We know how to deal with incompetence now."

While the elections were generally regarded as free and fair — certainly the most transparent in the country's recent memory — not every Egyptian accepted a vote organized by military rulers.

Bitterness over the election hoopla ran deep among the few thousand protesters who continued demonstrating against military rule Friday in the landmark Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo and outside the nearby Cabinet building.

The huge voter turnout gave weight to the ruling council's argument that the Tahrir Square protesters don't represent "a silent majority" of Egyptians, who find the continued demonstrations disruptive to ordinary life and a barrier to political progress.

The protesters' version is that opportunistic politicians sold out the revolutionaries to push for short-term elections instead of seizing the opportunity to break Egypt from 60 years of military dominance. They're also angry with fellow Egyptians. How could they vote, the protesters demanded, when security forces had fired birdshot and tear gas at young Egyptians just days earlier?

"All those partnerships between parties who decided to turn their backs on the people for the sake of elections will turn into war very soon," said Mona Ibrahim, 28, a bank worker who intentionally spoiled her ballot in protest. "They'll never be able to work together, and we won't support them, because they stood silent when the police were shooting us in the eyes."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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