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Salafist dig at Naguib Mahfouz is 'worrying,' says ElBaradei

Presidential hopeful ElBaradei says Egypt's youth were 'decimated' in parliamentary elections by Islamists, stressing that extremist strains of Islamism are worrying

AP, Monday 5 Dec 2011
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Egypt's top reformist leader has said the liberal youth behind the country's uprising have been "decimated" in parliamentary elections dominated by Islamists and expressed concern about the rise of hard-line religious elements advocating extremist ideas, such as banning women from driving.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize laureate and possible presidential candidate, said Sunday he hopes moderate Islamists will rein in the extremists and send a reassuring message to the world that Egypt will not go down an ultraconservative religious path.

"The youth feel let down. They don't feel that any of the revolution's goals have been achieved," ElBaradei told The Associated Press in an interview on the same day electoral authorities announced that Islamist parties captured an overwhelming majority of votes in the first round of elections last week. "They got decimated," he said, adding the youth failed to unify and form "one essential critical mass."

The Supreme Electoral Commission announced that the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party garnered 36.6 per cent of the 9.7 million valid ballots cast last week for party lists. The Nour Party, representing the more hard-line Salafist Islamists, captured 24.4 per cent.

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 and runoff elections on Monday and Tuesday to determine almost all of the seats allocated for individuals in the first round. But the grip of the Islamists over the next parliament appears set, particularly considering their popularity in provinces voting in the next rounds.

ElBaradei said he thought the combined strength of the two top-placed Islamist blocs surprised everyone, probably even the winning parties themselves.

"The outcome so far is not the greatest one," he said, summing up the mood of the country's educated elite as well as average Egyptians as "angst."

The new parliament will be tasked, in theory, with selecting a 100-member panel to draft the new constitution. If Islamist parties dominate, more liberal forces worry the constitution will be greatly influenced by the religious perspective.

In a move that angered the Islamist groups, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took control of the country after Mubarak's fall in February, has suggested that it will choose 80 of those members.

ElBaradei said writing the constitution that respects human rights, dignity and freedom of expression should be based on a consensus among all the players, and not on a parliamentary majority.

"In my view, it is all in the hands of SCAF right now," he said, hoping the ruling generals will help promote the consensus.

However, ElBaradei was highly critical of the military rulers, saying they have "royally mismanaged" the transition period.

He also raised concerns about statements by some Salafist elements questioning whether women should be banned from driving, as they are in Saudi Arabia, or branding the novels of Egypt's Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, as "prostitution."

"I worry of course that some of the extreme stuff coming out from some of the Salafis ... when you hear that literature of somebody like Mahfouz is equal to prostitution, if you hear that we are still debating whether women are going to drive their cars, if we are still discussing whether democracy is against sharia [Islamic law]," ElBaradei said.

"These are of course sending shockwaves, statements like that. I think the Brotherhood in particular, and some of the Salafists, should send quickly messages of assurance both inside the country and outside the country to make sure that society continues to be cohesive to make sure that investment will come in."

He said the statements "will have tremendous economic and political implications." Moderate Islamists need to "make clear that some of these voices ... are on the extreme fringes and they will not be the mainstream."

The focus on safeguarding religious principles should be mindful of rampant poverty and illiteracy, not "about what people are going to dress, to drink," he said.

Salafists are newcomers on Egypt's political scene. They 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 in February, seeking to enshrine Islamic law in Egypt's new constitution.

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organised political group, was officially banned under Mubarak but established a nationwide network of activists. After Mubarak's fall, the group's Freedom and Justice Party campaigned fiercely, their organisation and name-recognition giving them a big advantage over newly formed liberal parties.

ElBaradei said the Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing was not unexpected, given that Egypt is emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship that smothered civil society. He said one in every three Egyptians is illiterate and nearly half subsist in deep poverty.

"It should not be a surprise people are voting with their gut. People lost their sense of identity with the state. They identify with religion," ElBaradei said.

He said the Brotherhood has been working for many years providing basic needs for health care and other social services the government failed to deliver and they were well known throughout the country.

In contrast, the liberal youth groups behind the uprising failed to form a cohesive, unified front. He said they only formed political parties two months ago.

He predicted the Muslim Brotherhood will prefer to form an alliance with the liberals rather than the Salafis to get a majority in parliament. The liberal Egyptian Bloc — which came in third with 13.4 per cent of the votes — could counterbalance hard-line elements.

Nevertheless, ElBaradei agreed the first elections since Mubarak's fall were free and fair and said the massive turnout of about 60 per cent lent it legitimacy.

However, he said it will not produce a parliament that represents Egyptian society. ElBaradei said he expects few women, youths or Coptic Christians, a minority that constitutes about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million citizens.

The rise of the Islamists has also caused concern in the US and Israel, which has a long-standing peace treaty with Egypt it fears might be in jeopardy. But ElBaradei said he does not foresee any radical changes in Egypt's foreign policy because the country still depends heavily on foreign assistance and cannot afford to isolate itself. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid.

He said Egyptians are looking more to Turkey as a model for a moderate Islamist state rather than Saudi Arabia and its strict imposition of Islamic law.

ElBaradei said Egypt has progressed since the revolution but the economy and law and order have deteriorated sharply.

"We are now a freer country," he said. "People lost their sense of fear ... We are empowered as a people."

He said he is advising the liberal youth groups not to give up and to view this as a "long haul" process and to start preparing for the next elections, overcome their ideological differences and work together.

"We'll have to keep fighting," he said, adding that "the revolution is still a work in progress."

He predicted protesters will return to Cairo's Tahrir Square to keep pressing their demands.

"If you have the second wave of the revolution, it will be an angry one," he said.

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