Sunday, December 4, 2011

ltraconservative Islamists make gains in Egypt; Islamist sweep in Egypt polls worries Israel

Ultraconservative Islamists make gains in Egypt; Islamist sweep in Egypt polls worries Israel

Egypt's ultraconservative Islamist party plans to push for a stricter religious code in Egypt after claiming surprisingly strong gains in the first round of parliamentary elections, a spokesman said Friday.

Final results are to be announced later Friday, but preliminary counts have been leaked by judges and individual political groups.

Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give the religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.

Spokesman Yousseri Hamad says the Salafi Nour party expects to get 30 percent of the vote. Their party appeared to lead the polls in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheik, in the rural area of Fayoum, which is known for high rates of illiteracy and poverty, and in parts of their longtime stronghold of Alexandria.

Hamad also said the party faced its toughest challenge in Cairo because of the small presence of Salafi supporters there.

The strong showing would put them in a strong position to influence policy, although it's unclear how much power the new parliament will have with the ruling generals still in power.

Hamad said that his party is willing to cooperate with the rest of secular, liberal and Islamist forces, "if it will serve the interest of the nation."

This week's vote, held in nine provinces, will determine about 30 percent of the 498 seats in the People's Assembly, parliament's lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt's other 18 provinces.

The new parliament, in theory, is tasked to select 100-member panel to draft Egypt's new constitution.

The Nour Party is the main political arm of the hard-line Salafi movement, which unlike the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood is a new player on Egypt's political scene.

Inspired by the Saudi-style Wahhabi school of thought, Salafists have long shunned the concept of democracy, saying it allows man's law to override God's. But they formed parties and entered politics after Hosni Mubarak's ouster to position themselves to make sure Shariah law is an integral part of Egypt's new constitution.

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."

The showing in Egypt -- long considered a linchpin of regional stability -- would be the clearest signal yet that parties and candidates connected to political Islam will emerge as the main beneficiaries of this year's Arab Spring uprisings.

Tunisia and Morocco have both elected Islamist majorities to parliament, and while Libya has yet to announce dates for its first elections, Islamist groups have emerged as a strong force there since rebels overthrew Moammar Gadhafi in August. They also play a strong opposition role in Yemen.

Ultraconservative Islamists make gains in Egypt

Israeli officials expressed concern on Sunday over the future of ties with Cairo after Islamists claimed an overwhelming victory in the initial stage of Egypt's first post-revolution elections.

"We are worried, I hope that democracy will prevail in Egypt and that the country won't become an extremist Islamist state because that would put the whole region in danger," Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel public radio.

The results of the first part of the Egyptian elections, made official on Sunday, showed Islamists sweeping 65 percent of the vote.

The figures put the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in the lead, as expected, but also showed the Salafist hardline Islamists netting a surprise 25 percent of the vote.

The reaction in the Israeli press was clear: "It's even worse than expected," one security agency official told the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.

"What was once a danger has become a threat," the newspaper itself commented.

An Israeli government official told AFP that the emerging election results vindicated the Jewish state's cautious approach to the Arab Spring of revolts against autocratic rulers.

The success of Islamist candidates, many with unabashedly anti-Israeli platforms, showed it was naive to hold Israel responsible for its isolation, as US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta suggested on Friday, he argued.

Panetta said the Jewish state needed to do more to "mend fences" with former allies like Turkey and called on Israel to "just get to the damn table" when it came to peace talks with the Palestinians.

But the Israeli official's reaction said "those who attribute our isolation to the absence of negotiations with the Palestinians lack insight."

"Even if there were negotiations with the Palestinians, that would not at all affect the hostility and the hate the Islamists and other Salafists feel for us," he said.

Despite the concerns, Israeli officials have been at pains to say that their landmark 1979 peace deal with Egypt should not be considered at risk.

Yitzhak Levanon, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said Sunday that he could not foresee "in coming months" any scrapping of the deal which made Egypt the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the treaty remains in the interest of Egypt as well as of its neighbours.

"We hope that any government to be formed in Egypt will recognise the importance of keeping the peace treaty with Israel, as a value of its own and as a foundation to the financial and security stability of the region," he said on Sunday.

But Israeli officials say they do not expect to see Washington sanction Egypt by freezing aid to Cairo if the next government is formed by Islamist parties.

"The Egyptian people want change. If the Americans stop giving their aid, the Egyptians will find other sources, for example by raising the price of passage for ships through the Suez Canal," Levanon said.

On Saturday, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the Egyptian results were "very worrying," but added it was "premature to say how these changes will affect the region."

"I hope that any government that will be formed in Egypt will have no other choice but to respect its international commitments including the peace treaty with Israel," he told Channel 10 television.

The results of the first phase of Egypt's vote were, however, warmly welcomed by the Hamas movement, a Palestinian Islamist group born of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

"It is a very good result... It will mean more and more support for Palestinian issues," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP on Saturday. "The relationship of the next regime in Egypt with the Palestinians will be very good."

1. Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu listens to Finance Minister Steinitz during a session of the Knesset in Jerusalem
2.Boehner's comments came after talks with Israel's ambassador to Washington
3. Israel seized control of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967
4.Hillary Clinton hosts peace talks with leaders of Israel and Palestine in Washington, DC
5. Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington
6.Clinton said Washington would work intensively to break the Israel-Palestinian peace impasse
7. Egyptians wave national flags during a rally in support of the ruling supreme council of the armed forces, SCAF, at Abbasiya Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Islamists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally. Arabic on the ba

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