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Upshot of Egypt elections: Islamists are here to stay

 Muslim Brotherhood's success isn't surprising, but rise of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis is.

By Staff writer / December 1, 2011

Sobhi Saleh (r.) a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and candidate for parliament, speaks to voters at a polling station on the first day of parliamentary elections in Alexandria, Egypt, on Nov. 28.

Tarek Fawzy/AP

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Any discussion of Egypt's parliamentary election at this point needs to be filled with caveats. Full results for the lower house of parliament won't be known until January, at the earliest. Many Egyptians haven't voted yet. How much real power the next parliament will be able to exercise is uncertain. And it isn't clear how much influence it will have over the writing of a new constitution.

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But voting in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections confirms something that was long generally assumed, but unproven: that the Muslim Brotherhood, through its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is the most potent popular political force in Egypt.

More surprising is how well the Salafi Al Nour party is doing. Salafis are members of an ultraconservative branch of Islam who seek to emulate the early followers of the prophet Muhammad, and while they have much common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood, they are also far more extreme. They'd like to bring their strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, to public life. The Muslim Sisters wear head scarves; the wives and daughters of Salafis wear full niqabs (face veils) and frequently even gloves so that no skin is showing in public.

When Mubarak was pushed out in February, a lot of my middle-class and wealthy Egyptian friends in Cairo were convinced that their voices were going to be major ones in Egyptian politics. Sure, the Brothers were powerful, but they thought their influence was frequently overstated. Since the Brothers had been the only real opposition to Mubarak, with the ability to organize around mosques and their network of charities, it was natural for dissatisfied Egyptians to rally around them. But now, with more freedom for all kinds of social currents to organize, their influence would likely be dampened.

That's not how it's working out, and my friends in Cairo are looking on in alarm as it looks like the voters' alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood are the heavy beards and idiosyncratic ways of the Salafis. How strong have they looked so far? In Assiut, a city south of Cairo that probably has one of the country's highest proportions (if not the highest proportion) of Coptic Christians, the combined votes for the FJP and Al Nour were about 90,000 against 32,000 for the Egyptian Bloc, a secular list that would have been the natural choice for any Coptic voter or other Egyptian uncomfortable with Islamist politics.

Liberalism has been dealt a blow

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