Egypt runoff exposes tensions between Islamists
An Egyptian army soldier guards at the roof of a polling center next to an electoral poster that reads, in Arabic, "Al-Nour Party, candidate Mohammed Ahmed Jaber," during the first day of runoffs in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. / AP Photo/Nasser Nasser
CAIRO - A runoff Monday for Egypt's first-round parliamentary elections exposed tensions between competing Islamist parties that have so far dominated the vote.
In the southern province of Assiut, supporters of hardline Islamist party Gamaa Islamiya attacked and chased away campaign workers from the Muslim Brotherhood outside a polling station where the two groups were facing off in a vote. Supporters of one Brotherhood candidate said they received death threats and one of their clerics was beaten up by campaign workers of Gamaa Islamiya an ex-militant group-turned-political party.
The Brotherhood, the most established and organized party running, is in the lead so far, according to official results released on Sunday. Gamaa Islamiya is part of the second-place Al-Nour alliance with the ultraconservative Salafists, hard-liners who seek to impose strict Islamic law on Egypt.
The elections are the first since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in an uprising in February and are the freest and fairest in living memory. Voters are choosing both individual candidates and parties and runoffs on Monday and Tuesday will determine almost all the seats allocated for individuals in the first round, about a third of parliament's 498 seats.
The two leading Islamist blocs of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists took an overwhelming majority of the first-round vote for parties with 60 percent, a huge blow to the liberal and youthful activists who drove the uprising. But the tallies offer only a partial indication of how the new parliament will look. There are still two more rounds of voting in 18 of the country's 27 provinces over the coming month.
But the grip of the Islamists over the next parliament appears set, particularly considering their popularity in provinces voting in the next rounds. The runoffs are unlikely to alter the Islamists' dominance.
The first round of voting includes the capital Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria in Egypt's north. Turnout in Cairo Monday was very weak, with little drama.
But in Assiut, tensions between Islamists were simmering. The province is a stronghold of Gamaa Islamiya, a former militant group that fought the Mubarak regime in a bloody insurgency in 1990s.
Since Mubarak's ouster, hardline Islamists, many of whom were released from prisons, exploited a growing security vacuum in the country and grew increasingly assertive in a push for power. In Assiut, they wrested control of mosques from government-appointed preachers and installed their own prayer leaders. The city is filled with signs exhorting residents to follow Islamic teachings and women to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf.
"The hijab is obligatory," one sign says. "Take your eyes off women," another tells men.
In the city of Dayrout in Assiut province, the Brotherhood accused Gamaa Islamiya campaign workers of attacking their supporters and ordered all Brotherhood campaign workers to remove their computers and stay away from polling centers around the city. The Brotherhood has been accused of violating election rules barring campaigning near polling sites on election day.
"A cleric was beat up, insulted and ordered to stay away," a Muslim Brotherhood campaign worker there told The Associated Press. "Our people were told not to get close to the polling centers," the worker said, asking not to be identified for security concerns. He said Gamaa Islamiya was using loudspeakers mounted on pickup trucks cruising the streets to urge people to vote for their candidate, but threatening others if they did not keep quiet.
"Our people were threatened that if they entered villages around this city, they will be shot dead," he said.
The Brotherhood told its campaign workers to avoid confrontations, according to one of the workers in Assiut.
The tensions were also evident in Alexandria.
A video clip for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Hosni Dweidar, who is contesting hardline Salafist sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, shows Dweidar in anti-Mubarak protests during the uprising. Next it shows El-Shahat, with the long beard typically worn by Salafists, slamming the youth behind the uprising as "barbaric." The Brotherhood, which was banned and persecuted under Mubarak, threw its support behind the uprising shortly after it began while Salafist leaders came out against the protests in the beginning.
El-Shahat raised concerns with both secular liberals and moderate Islamists last week when he branded the novels of Egypt's Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, as "prostitution."
Some of the runoffs pit Islamist candidates from the Brotherhood and the Salafis against each other while others are between Islamists and secular candidates. The runoffs will decide 52 of the 56 seats for individuals that were up for grabs in the first round. Only four were decided in the first round.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party garnered 36.6 percent of the 9.7 million valid ballots cast for party lists, according to results released on Sunday. The Salafists' Al-Nour Party captured 24.4 percent, while the secular Egyptian Bloc won 13.4 percent of the votes.
The Salafis want to impose strict Islamic law on Egypt and the strong Islamist showing worries liberal parties, and even some religious parties, who fear the two groups will work to push a religious agenda. It has also left many of the youthful activists behind the uprising feeling that their revolution has been hijacked.
Tensions aside, the runoffs drew a much weaker turnout compared to last week's vote which drew massive lines. The electoral commission initially said turnout last week was around 60 percent but it revised the number down to 52 percent on Monday still the highest in Egypt's modern history.
In Cairo, Sohair Kansouh, waiting with hundreds of other women to cast her ballot in an upper-class Cairo neighborhood, said she is worried about the Islamists' win because she doesn't want Egypt to "go back 1,000 years."
"I'm Muslim and we want freedom and tolerance for all. But if they (Islamists) come to power, there will be less freedom for all, especially women," said Kansouh, 72, adding that a parliament dominated by Islamists will "mean that all the objectives of the revolution have failed."
Others came out to bolster the Islamists' already strong showing.
"We want Muslims who fear God to rule because they are cleaner than those who came before," said Karim Nabil, a 24-year-voter who cast his ballot while holding a Brotherhood leaflet in the other hand.
The new parliament will be tasked, in theory, with selecting a 100-member panel to draft the new constitution. Liberals are now worried that the Islamists will gain too much sway over the process and will impose a religious agenda on it.
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