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Worldview: Good news and bad in Egyptian election

How worried should we be that Islamists won 70 percent of the seats in the first round of Egypt's first free parliamentary elections?

Mohammed Nour, Salafi party spokesman: "We are always going to believe the Islamic system is better than democracy." (Trudy Rubin / Staff)
Mohammed Nour, Salafi party spokesman: "We are always going to believe the Islamic system is better than democracy." (Trudy Rubin / Staff)Read more

How worried should we be that Islamists won 70 percent of the seats in the first round of Egypt's first free parliamentary elections?

Especially since 20 percent of the seats went to puritanical Salafis who want to practice the faith as if they lived in Prophet Muhammed's time?

At stake is the fate of the most pivotal Arab state, a longtime U.S. ally with a rich history and culture, which signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel. Egypt is a critical test case for whether democracy can flourish in Arab states or will lead inevitably to mullocracy.

So of course we should be worried. But the Egyptian elections won't end until March, and much can happen before then. So here's the good news and the bad news about the elections, and some ideas on what might bring promising results.

First the bad news:

Yes, indeed, the strong showing by the Salafi Nour Party is disturbing. Salafis don't speak with one voice, but some preach hatred of Christians on satellite channels allegedly funded by Saudis and Qataris, and some have attacked Christians and burned churches.

Salafi clerics have called for banning interest-bearing loans, alcohol, and "fornication," while limiting rights for women and Copts. They want to tighten the loose constitutional proviso that all laws be compliant with sharia, and have clerics certify that laws are sharia-compliant. And they want to censor culture: Prominent Salafi candidate Abdel Moneim al-Shahat denounced the works of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz as "atheist literature."

Last month, I interviewed the Nour party spokesman, Mohammed Nour (whose name is coincidental), at his public-relations firm in the upscale Cairo suburb of Mahdi. He wore a suit with a striped shirt, and his modern office sported black walls with orange couches and chrome armrests; a female office secretary wore a headscarf and long skirt, but her face was uncovered. Nour said his party was misunderstood, but his comments said otherwise.

"We are always going to believe the Islamic system is better than democracy," he said. Salafis reversed their previous objection to elections, he said, only because they saw that the ballot had become a vehicle for political change.

But, he added: "You can't have laws that conflict with sharia. The laws before the revolution were all corrupt laws."

The Nour party would rule out sales of alcohol, or the wearing of bikinis, thus crippling resorts that bring essential tourist revenues to Egypt.

As for women's rights, "we would not elect a woman. It is right not to vote for her." Required by law to place women on their list, the Nour party put them at the very bottom and used flowers instead of photos of female candidates.

Women could work, the party spokesman told me, "but only in specific positions, because of biology." (The Salafi candidate for president, Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, says he would require all women to veil.)

As for the treaty with Israel, Salafis want to see it put to a popular referendum, with the expectation that it would be rejected.

So, the fact that Salafis won a critical bloc of parliamentary seats is sobering. And they will probably do at least as well in the next two rounds of voting, which will mostly take place in rural areas.

However, here is some potentially "good" news:

Of the 70 percent of seats won so far by Islamists, 50 percent belong to the far more moderate Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Far more cautious and more experienced than the brash, younger Salafis, the Brotherhood says it won't further Islamicize the constitution.

Moreover, the Brotherhood and the Salafis dislike each other intensely. The Nour party's strong showing will probably encourage the Brotherhood to try to work closely with non-Islamists in parliament - to offset the Salafis.

And Salafi gains have sent an urgent wake-up call to liberal and leftist parties, which appear to have won about 30 percent of the seats, that they must, belatedly, work closely together. (Ironically, the seculars may now find the Brotherhood has become a vital ally).

A wake-up call has also been delivered to the Egyptian military. If it heeds it - and it's not clear it will - it will cease its crackdown on civil society, and start listening to the ideas of secular political leaders, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, on how to balance the Islamists by democratic means.

The final piece of good news that militates against further Salafi gains is the moderate character of the Egyptian people. Unlike Shiite Iran, this Sunni country has no tradition of direct clerical involvement in politics, and has rejected radical Islam in the past.

When I spoke to locals last month at an outdoor market in the working-class district of Imbaba, those who were planning to vote for Salafis ascribed their choice to the Salafi tradition of social work and the fact that Salafis had never before been involved in politics.

Now that the Salafis have entered the arena, they will be judged by their performance. If they denounce tourism - a prime source of jobs - they will rapidly lose popularity. And if they call for radical changes in society, they will also lose their shine.

Indeed, in Alexandria, the infamous Abdel Moneim al-Shahat - the Nour party candidate who called democracy a heresy and denounced Nobel laureate Mahfouz - was defeated in Sunday's runoff election. It's too soon to say whether this is a trend, but let us hope so. That would be the best good news of all.