- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s ultraconservative Islamist party has reached out to rival secular and liberal political factions in an unusual, behind-the-scenes attempt to unify their ranks and counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s power in the country’s new parliament.

An alliance between the Salafis and nonreligious parties would be very difficult to reach and even harder to maintain, given the large differences in their ideologies. But the talks highlight the growing worries that the Brotherhood, fresh off its election victory, is starting to throw its weight around to dominate Egypt’s politics and sideline others.

The talks, which took place over the past week, also show the strange bedfellows that can be brought together with Egypt’s politics deeply in flux ahead of the convening later this month of the first parliament since the Feb. 11 fall of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

As a consequence, parliament may not be controlled by a unified Islamist front, but a divided one making choices on political considerations not purely religious ones. The Brotherhood and the Salafis are both Islamist movements, but there have been frequent frictions between them during the election campaign.

The Salafi talks with liberals are startling because the movement is considerably more conservative than the Brotherhood and more aggressive in its vilification of secularism. Salafis call for a strict, literalist implementation of Islamic Shariah law in Egypt and practice a Saudi-style segregation of the sexes. During the election campaign, some Salafi sheikhs railed against secular parties, telling Egyptians that voting for them would be un-Islamic.

With Egypt’s multistage parliament elections almost finished, the Brotherhood is on track to win just under 50 percent of the legislature’s seats. The alliance led by the main Salafi party, Al-Nour, holds about 20 percent, while multiple liberal, leftist, secular parties along with independents and remnants of Mubarak’s regime make up most of the rest.

Talks between the Al-Nour Party and the two main liberal groups, the Free Egyptians and the Wafd Party, came in response to fears the Brotherhood is moving to monopolize key legislative positions including the parliament president, deputies and heads of its 19 committees, said Essam Sultan, a leading member of the Al-Wasat Party, which hosted the talks.

Parliament is also supposed to also create a 100-member panel to write Egypt’s new constitution. In an interview with the Al-Ahram daily, senior Brotherhood official Ahmed Abu Baraka laid out what he called the group’s vision for the panel’s makeup — raising alarm that the Brotherhood was seeking to run the process. The group’s leadership quickly distanced itself, saying Abu Baraka was expressing his personal viewpoint.

Such unilateral moves by the Brotherhood, ahead of the scheduled convening of parliament on Jan. 23, put other parties “under heavy pressure,” said Sultan. “The minute I proposed these meetings, everybody agreed to come.”

The head of the Salafi Al-Nour, Emad Abdel-Ghafour, confirmed the meetings but declined to comment on the possibility of striking alliances. “We look for wide national reconciliation because its not possible anymore to isolate any political faction or to run parliament through 50+1 majority,” he said.

During the talks, Al-Nour leaders sat at the table with unveiled female members of the Wafd Party, Sultan noted. He also said they engaged in “very successful talks” with the Free Egyptians party, whose founder is Christian Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris is on trial on charges of showing contempt for religion after a Salafi party official complained over a tweet in which he posted a cartoon depicting Mickey Mouse with the beard of an Islamic conservative and Minnie Mouse in a black Islamic veil.

Sultan said that over four days, the parties agreed on general principle that parliament must not be run by a single party, distribution of positions should be based on the proportional weight of each party and parties with small representation should not be neglected.

They also talked about “what brings them together not what separates them apart. The priorities should be on laws related to health services, education, security and improve quality of life,” he said.

“We want an end of dictatorship. We don’t want to reinvent the old regime through a new dominant ruling party,” Sultan said in an oblique reference to the Brotherhood.

He said the liberal parties also aired their concerns over the Salafis’ view of civil rights. Christian Wafd member Margaret Azer “talked to them (the Salafis) about all her worries, and they responded to everything,” he said. “It was very positive meeting.”

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