Egypt's ElBaradei: Liberals 'decimated' in vote

December 4, 2011 - 6:16 PM
Mideast Egypt

Pro-reform leader and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his home in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011. Egypt's top reformist leader said the liberal youth behind the country's uprising

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top reformist leader said Sunday 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 possible presidential candidate, said 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 High Election Commission announced that the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party garnered 36.6 percent of the 9.7 million valid ballots cast last week for party lists. The Nour Party, representing the more hard-line Salafi Islamists, captured 24.4 percent.

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.

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 perceptive.

ElBaradei also raised concerns about statements by some Salafi 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 Shariah," or Islamic law, ElBaradei said.

"These are of course sending shockwaves, statements like that. I think the Brotherhood in particular, and some of the Salafis, 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 act quickly to send messages of assurances and to make clear that some of these voices are fringes are on the extreme fringes and they will not be the mainstream. "

Salafis 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 organized political group, was officially banned under Mubarak but established a nationwide network of activists who built a reputation for offering services to the poor. After Mubarak's fall, the group's Freedom and Justice Party campaigned fiercely, their organization 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 healthcare and other social services the government failed to deliver and they were well know 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.

"I should say even if they continued to coalesce into a cohesive bloc, they would not have been able to compete fairly and squarely right now," he said. "They don't have the resources, they don't know the techniques. ... They haven't connected with the people on the street."

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 percent 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 percent 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.