It was a strange scene in Cairo Thursday as the head of the country's election commission convened a press conference to announce the results of this week's first round of parliamentary elections. Abdul Moiz Ibrahim hailed the 62 percent turnout in the compulsory poll as the best showing "since the time of the pharaohs" - rulers not known for their belief in participatory government. Mr. Ibrahim alluded vaguely to problems in counting the ballots. Just as Mr. Ibrahim was expected to deliver the results, he abruptly left the room. "I have no more energy," he said, "I've run out of gas."
Mr. Ibrahim might well have been speaking for the hopes that the Arab Spring would lead to increased liberalization in that part of the world. Islamist parties topped the rolls in recent elections in Tunisia and Morocco, and Egypt appears to be following suit. Projected results show that the bloc led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was expected to win around 40 percent of the vote, the Islamist Nour Party bloc is predicted to have taken a surprising 30 percent of the vote, with other parties dividing up the remainder. If accurate, these results show that the Egyptian electorate has chosen an Islamic identity for the country.
The surprise success of the Nour Party bloc is most alarming. One member of the bloc, the Building and Development Party, is the political arm of Jamaah al Islamaya, a former terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda. It does not differ with the Muslim Brotherhood on strategic objectives for Egypt, such as the Koran being the only legitimate basis for government. They only disagree on tactics. The Nour bloc seeks to impose Shariah law more swiftly and severely that the FJP.
The success of more radical Islamist groups helps the FJP since it enables commentators in the United States to refer to them as the "moderate alternative." The FJP has cultivated this image by saying that it would not seek immediate radical reforms and would respect the rights of religious minorities should it come to power. But there are limits to their notions of tolerance. A week ago in Cairo 5,000 people joined in a rally at the Al-Azhar mosque chanting a passage from the Koran, "one day we shall kill all the Jews." The rally was hosted by the Union of Muslim Scholars, whose leader, Youssef Qaradawi, is also the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamist electoral victories signal a retreat on women's rights. In Tunisia, Muslim radicals occupied a university, taking students and professors hostage and demanding segregated classrooms and full-face veils for women. Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein noted the "naive enthusiasm" of western media coverage showing "Egyptian women queuing to vote, with their heads covered or uncovered, wearing jeans or skirts, joyful, and hopeful about the wonderfully powerful instrument of elections." The scene will not be repeated in future elections under Islamist rule, if there are any. "Women," she warned, "prepare your scarves."
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