Moderates worried about success of Egypt's ultraconservative Islamists

Egypt's Salafis got nearly a quarter of the vote in last month's elections and that has raised fears at home and abroad of a new government influenced by hardliners.

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CAIRO // Their campaign was built on promises to ban alcohol, enforce dress codes for women and cover Egypt's ancient pharaoh statues in wax.

The country's ultraconservative Islamists, or Salafis, surprisingly garnering nearly a quarter of the vote, are set to take centre stage by controlling a strong portion of parliament.

Their victory has raised fears at home and abroad of a new Egyptian government influenced by hardliners.

"The people love Islam. They want to be ruled by Islam," said Adl Taha, 42, an organiser for the country's most prominent Salafist political party, Al Nour (The Light), in a poor neighbourhood in Alexandria on election day.

Moderate Egyptians, many foreign governments and others worry that the Salafis, emboldened after an uprising that toppled the president, Hosni Mubarak, will curtail personal freedoms and halt the flow of tourists, Egypt's main source of revenue.

Salaf is an Arabic word that refers to practicing Islam in the manner of the Prophet Mohammed's followers in 7th and 8th century Arabia. The Salafists follow a strict interpretation of Sharia derived from Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Wahabbi sect.

Salafist organisations normally shun electoral politics as un-Islamic. But here they are calling for the implementation of Islamic law through the ballot box.

"We can say that they are extremists," Ali Thabet, the head of the more moderate Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, said of Al Nour and its followers.

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) swept the first round of legislative polls in nine governorates on November 28, capturing 48 per cent of the available seats in the first free elections since February's revolt.

Al Nour, established in June and leading an electoral alliance of smaller Salafi parties, came in second with nearly 25 per cent. The Egyptian Bloc, a grouping of liberal secular parties, got 16 per cent.

The upcoming rounds, held over the next four weeks, are not expected to drastically change the results.

"Personally, I did not expect them [Al Nour] to get more than 10-15 per cent of the vote," Mr Thabet said. "But I don't think they will do well in the next rounds. The people want moderation."

But the Salafis say they have two million core voters, drawn from their years of grassroots charitable works and social activities in poor neighbourhoods. Al Nour's precursor was the apolitical Al Daawa organisation founded by Salafist followers in Alexandria in the 1970s. Preferring strict Sharia, its members baulked at the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We are popular among the Egyptian people," said Al Nour party spokesman, Youssri Hamad. "For 30 years, we carried out activities for the poor, for the widows. This is why we have so much support."

Mr Hamad said the Salafis finally decided to establish a political party to protect Egypt's Islamic identity.

Of the country's 85 million people, about 90 per cent are Muslim.

Another 10 per cent are Coptic Christians, whom Al Nour says should be banned from running for president.

One of the lingering questions after the Salafi win is the amount of influence they will have over the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament, moderates and political analysts say.

Many are worried Al Nour and the Salafis will pull the FJP to the far right, resulting in more stringent Islamic laws.

The Brotherhood has emphasised its openness and political pragmatism, saying it will not force women to cover-up or cancel Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

"I don't like the Brotherhood and I think they are dangerous," said Marwan Yassin, 21, an activist with the April 6 Coalition, a revolutionary group. "But the Salafis are even worse. They are playing a dirty game, and if they come to power, they will show their true face. They will make problems for the Brotherhood in government"

Still, some in the Brotherhood feel the challenges of governance will have a more moderating effect on the Islamists.

Al Nour "focus on specific aspects of Sharia but their political thought is improving," said Ahmed El Nahhas, a Brotherhood leader in Alexandria. "They are embracing political plurality and when they are in the parliament, they will adjust to the new reality of having to accept other opinions."

Ismaa Aslan, a computer-science student at Alexandria University, supports the Salafis and said they are likely to rattle western countries who have concerns about human rights.

"First we have to show the world that we are democratic, then we can pursue an Islamic government," said the 21-year-old Ms Aslan, who chooses to wear a veil. "We have to show them that there are extremists and non-extremists and that Salafis give more freedom to women. They protect us."