Egypt readies for lively parliamentary term. Opposition gains in recent vote expected to bring Islamic law debate to fore

Egypt's parliamentary elections last week were a watershed in Egypt's political development, according to political observers and analysts here. For the first time since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, observers say, the parties in the People's Assembly (parliament) will roughly reflect the pluralistic nature of Egyptian society, especially the growing trend of Islamic fundamentalism.

It is also the first time since 1976 that Egypt's People's Assembly includes a sizable block of opponents to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In that year, the late President Anwar Sadat ordained a multi-party system that he fashioned himself.

In last week's elections, according to Interior Ministry figures, 50 percent of Egypt's 14.5 million eligible voters went to the polls. Of those, 69.6 percent voted for the NDP; 17 percent voted for an alliance of the Socialist Labor Party, the Liberals, and the Muslim Brotherhood. (This group advocates Sharia, or Islamic law.) And the right-wing New Wafd Party scored 10.9 percent of the total.

Observers point out, however, that President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party will still hold a comfortable majority and can expect to carry the day on all legislative issues. What will change, however, will be the airing that opposition views receive in parliament and the kind of issues that will be debated, especially the call for Sharia and related issues, such as the banning of alcohol and gambling.

Egypt's foreign policy is unlikely to change, observers say. But on domestic issues, the NDP may try to appease Islamic elements to avoid confrontation.

Allegations of intimidation and fraud on election day have mostly died away, and the election is seen as relatively clean by Egyptian standards.

Mr. Mubarak reportedly wanted the next Assembly more clearly to reflect political trends, so that he could garner broad-based support for economic austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund in return for a standby-credit arrangement. The standby credit is a prerequisite for Egypt to reschedule its $38-billion foreign debt. The leftist Tegamu Party, which adamantly opposes austerity - particularly the reduction of food subsidies - did not win any seats in this election and its absence in the parliament will presumably make the economic debate easier for the NDP.

A major question asked here now is whether the pro-Islamic members of parliament will evolve into a moderate or radical opposition. Also of interest is whether the New Wafd will ally itself with the Islamic alliance or the government. If it links with the Islamic alliance on Sharia, the pressure for Islamization will grow.

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