BEIRUT

Middle East

Leading in vote, Egypt Islamists reach out to rivals

A woman fills in her ballot paper before casting her vote in Toukh, El-Kalubia governorate, about 25 km (16 miles) northeast of Cairo January 3, 2012. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

CAIRO: The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was edging on Wednesday towards a dominant role in Egypt's first free parliament in decades, but said it would not impose its will over a new constitution and would work with all political rivals on the blueprint.

Egyptians went to the polls for a second day in the final stage of the election for the assembly's lower house, the first free legislative vote since military officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952.

The vote is part of the ruling army council's plan to hand power to civilians before July, ending their turbulent interregnum that began with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February in a popular uprising.

Welcomed then as heroes who helped nudge the unpopular, autocratic leader from office, the generals now face anger over their handling of protests that left 59 dead since mid-November and an economic crisis that is worsening the plight of the poor.

Raids last week on non-government organizations monitoring the vote by police who sought evidence of foreign funding for political parties have incensed rights activists and drawn a rebuke from Egypt's long-time ally the United States.

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has led after two of the three rounds of voting and the rise of Islamist parties in the poll has prompted Western concern for the future of Egypt's close ties to Washington and peace with Israel.

Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood is Egypt's best organized political force, emerging stronger than others from three decades of autocratic rule under Mubarak. The new parliament will pick a 100-member assembly to write a new constitution.

"The party's winning of the majority in the new parliament does not mean going it alone in writing the constitution without consideration for the rights of other Egyptians, or ignoring the political forces which did not get a majority or failed in the parliamentary elections," said FJP head Mohamed Mursi.

"All political forces and intellectuals in Egypt, regardless of their political and religious allegiances, will take part in writing the constitution," said Mursi, whose comments were published on the Muslim Brotherhood's website on Tuesday.

The more hardline Islamist al-Nour Party has come second in the voting so far. It is a Salafi group promoting a strict interpretation of Islamic law and its success has raised the prospect of a chamber dominated by Islamists.

Some analysts believe, however, that the Muslim Brotherhood could seek to build a coalition with secular groups.

That could ease concerns at home and in the West about the rise of the Islamists in a country whose economy is propped up by tourism.

The staggered lower house election concludes with a run-off vote on Jan. 10 and 11, with final results expected on Jan. 13. Voting for the upper house will be held in January and February.

 

The election will produce the first Egyptian parliament with popular legitimacy in decades, raising the possibility of friction with the army.

The army has been the focus of the street protests, held by activists who accuse it of seeking to hold on to power and privilege. The generals say they do not want to govern, but some still doubt their intentions.

In an echo of the Mubarak years, four activists were detained on Tuesday for putting up posters critical of the military council, activists and a source in the public prosecutor's office said.

They were detained while hanging posters comparing images of soldiers after the 1973 war with Israel with pictures of troops beating women in Cairo during protests last month, said Amr Ezz, an organizer of the April 6 movement to which the four belonged.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer, said the arrests were part of a trend including raids last week against 17 pro-democracy and human rights groups.

The United States criticized the authorities over the raids, part of what Cairo said was an investigation into foreign funding. The United States said Egypt had failed to resolve the stand-off over the U.S.-backed non-governmental organizations.

"We had been assured by leaders within the Egyptian government that this issue would be resolved ... it is frankly unacceptable to us that that situation has not been returned to normal," a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said.

She said it appeared Egypt's crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs was driven by "Mubarak hold-overs who don't understand how these organizations operate in a democratic society".

The International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday it was still discussing with Egyptian authorities the timing of an IMF mission visit, adding that economic measures the government had published in June represented possible benchmarks for funding.

Egypt, whose economy was battered by the uprising that unseated Mubarak, turned down a $3 billion IMF facility in June, saying it did not need the funds. The ruling generals have also been reluctant to take on debt without a popular mandate.

But ministers have suggested Egypt might be prepared to return to the negotiating table, as economists say the country risks a full-blown currency and budget crisis unless it can secure up to $15 billion of funding from abroad.

 

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