- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s ultraconservative Islamist party said Friday it plans to push for a stricter religious code in Egypt after claiming surprisingly strong gains in this week’s initial round of voting for parliament, the first elections since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

Egypt’s election commission announced only a trickle of results Friday and said 62 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the highest turnout in Egypt’s modern history. Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim, the head of High Election Commission, jokingly described it as “the highest since the time of pharaohs.”

Preliminary counts leaked by judges and individual political groups indicated that the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm took the largest share of votes. Following closely behind, was the ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party and a coalition of liberal parties called the Egyptian bloc, according to those unofficial counts.

That trend — if confirmed and if extended over more rounds of voting — would give the religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military that took over from Mubarak and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.

The Islamist Nour Party expects to get 30 percent of the vote, party spokesman Yousseri Hamad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

A strong showing would put them in a position to influence policy, although it’s unclear how much power the new parliament will have with the ruling generals still in overall control. For example, the military, which is not keen to see Egypt delivered to radical Islamists, maintains that it — not the largest bloc in parliament — will choose the prime minister and Cabinet once all parliamentary voting rounds are completed. It is also poised to closely oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

The Nour Party’s purist pursuit of strict Shariah, or Islamic law, would also face tough opposition from a diverse array of youth activists in the streets, Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, as well as liberal and secular political parties pushing for more social and political freedoms — perhaps forcing it to veer less toward the large role that religion plays in Saudi Arabia.

The Nour Party is the main political arm of the hard-line Salafi movement, which was inspired by the Saudi-style Wahhabi school of thought.

Salafists are newcomers on Egypt’s political scene. They long shunned the concept of democracy, saying it allows man’s law to override God’s. But they formed parties and entered politics after Mubarak’s ouster to position themselves to try to make sure Shariah law is an integral part of Egypt’s new constitution.

The more moderate and pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has been around since 1928 and has for decades been the largest and best organized opposition movement in Egypt, despite being officially outlawed until Mubarak’s ouster.

Seeking to broaden its political appeal, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has described its election platform as civil but with an Islamic background, setting them up to be more rival than ally to the harder-line Islamists.

Hamad said his party is willing to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood as well as with secular and liberal forces “if it will serve the interest of the nation.”

Still, Salafi groups speak confidently about their ambition to turn Egypt into a state where personal freedoms, including freedom of speech, women’s dress and art are constrained by Islamic Shariah codes.

“In the land of Islam, I can’t let people decide what is permissible or what is prohibited. It’s God who gives the answers as to what is right and what is wrong,” Hamad said. “If God tells me you can drink whatever you want except for alcohol, you don’t leave the million things permitted and ask about the prohibited.”

Their surprisingly strong showing worries many liberals and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

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