Egypt's seculars desperate to balance Islamists

December 14, 2011 - 7:40 PM
APTOPIX Mideast Egypt

An Egyptian man shows his inked thumb after casting his vote in Menoufia, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Egyptians turned out in large numbers Wednesday to vote in the second round of parliamentary elections that have become a stiff competition between dominant Islamist parties likely to steer the country in a more religious direction. (AP Photo)

CAIRO (AP) — Overwhelmed by Islamists in parliamentary elections, the secular and liberal youths who were the driving force behind Egypt's uprising are scrambling to ensure their voices are not lost as a new constitution and government take shape.

Two Islamist blocs — newly emboldened after decades of repression under Mubarak's secular regime — won close to 70 percent of seats in the initial balloting on Nov. 28-29, while the revolutionary parties got less than 15 percent so far, according to an Associated Press tally compiled from official results. A power struggle is emerging between religious factions and the ruling military, with liberals appearing to be on the sidelines.

The second round of voting on Wednesday and Thursday and a final phase in January are not expected to alter the outcome, and Islamists may even boost their gains.

Without a doubt, the presence of the liberal youths behind the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak will be meager in parliament and Islamists will be in control. But Wael Khalil, a member of one of the alliances born out of the uprising, Revolution Continues, said the fight for the future of Egypt will also be waged outside official institutions.

"In the media, in the revolutionary spaces and in the new media," Khalil said. "This will play an important role in steering and influencing the discussions (away from the conflict and) toward the basic issues."

The most immediate and urgent concern for the revolutionaries is the drafting of the country's new constitution.

The new parliament will be in charge of picking the 100-member constituent assembly to draft the future constitution of the Arab world's most populous country. Many fear an Islamist-dominated parliament may lead to a document guided by strict Islamic principles.

Egypt's military rulers have clearly picked up on liberals' fears. Soon after the Islamist surge in the first round, they floated a new idea designed to prevent an Islamist-dominated parliament from monopolizing the drafting of the constitution. A member of the military ruling council said the parliament is not "representative" enough of the country, and that a parallel military-appointed advisory council, along with the government, would work with the newly elected house to choose those who will draft the constitution.

Sameh Ashour, the head of the lawyer's union and a supporter of the revolution, has become a member of the military-appointed council.

"We can't leave the council alone to be pressured by only one trend in one direction," he told the ONTV network Monday.

Khalil said the military is trying to play the liberals and the Islamists against each other to improve its own standing. He said liberal groups shouldn't let their worries about the Islamists send them into the arms of the generals who helped lead Mubarak's old regime.

"It is like running out from the frying pan into the fire," he said.

Some suggested it was time to build alliances with the dominant parties in the parliament.

Prominent reformist columnist Ibrahim Eissa went as far as saying it is no point talking with the military, expressing a growing sentiment that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood is increasingly seizing the reins in determining the future shape of Egypt.

The badly lagging secular and liberal groups were scrambling to keep Islamist parties from grabbing even more of the spoils in Wednesday's second round of parliamentary elections. They turned to celebrities and tried to adopt a more Muslim-friendly image.

Hours before voting started Wednesday dozens of volunteers crammed in a small room for a crash-course on election monitoring by one of the liberal parties.

One volunteer interrupted a detailed dicussion of legal procedures, saying: "We don't have time. We want to save whatever we can."

Omniya Fikry, a voter in Giza province, home to the famous pyramids on the western outskirts of Cairo, said she was worried a dominant Islamic bloc would reproduce the one-party system that dominated politics under Mubarak.

"I came out to give some balance," Fikry said, adding that she was alarmed by Islamist candidates and clerics who have become increasingly vocal about wanting to impose strict Islamic rules on Egyptians.

"I was worried of all their statements about sex segregation, tourism and beaches," she said. "Islamists can't come after all of that and hold a stick and rule us with fire."

While the Islamists ran a highly organized and disciplined campaign, a dozen different liberal and secular parties were unable to unite because of differences over strategies. The Muslim Brotherhood, known to many across the country for decades of providing social services the government failed to offer, had multiple advantages.

The Egyptian Bloc, a grouping of liberal and socialist parties, got just 9 percent of the seats in the first round of the elections. The Revolution Continues alliance, made up of socialist, liberal and moderate Islamist youth, garnered about 3 percent of the vote.

Some liberals claim Islamist parties improperly influenced some undecided voters outside the polls in the first round, and were monitoring Wednesday's elections to avoid a repeat. But others say the secular parties have simply not worked hard enough to connect to the majority of Egyptian voters.

The country is largely conservative, and 40 percent of its 85 million people live in poverty. Many of the liberals clamoring for votes, meanwhile, come from relatively privileged backgrounds.

May Cholkamy, a candidate backed by the Egyptian Bloc, said she realized "how far (apart) the mentalities were" as she campaigned in poor districts.

Cholkamy, a diplomat's daughter who has worked in public relations and banking, said she is now lobbying people from her affluent neighborhood to go meet the other side of Egypt.

"They just need to wake up ... We can't just live so far away from people," she said.

While some played up the fear factor from Islamist groups or drummed up differences of Islamic interpretation among them, other liberals have tried to tweak their image in other ways. Some parties portrayed their candidates in a more Islamic light, showing some praying in campaign footage and pictures and promoting veiled women on their lists.

A TV campaign by the Egyptian Bloc drummed: "If you don't want it to become like Afghanistan or turn into an America, chose the Egyptian Bloc."

A new video campaign studded with young celebrities and actors was launched to support the Revolution Continues bloc; arguing for youth and trumpeting members credentials' as leaders of the Tahrir Square protests.

Khaled Aboul Naga, a prominent actor, tells a hesitant voter in the video,

"I know there are trends and parties who want to teach Egyptians what is right and what is wrong and how to live life like them. I am not voting for those for sure," he said. He said the Revolution Continues candidates "will secure that the voice of freedom is in the parliament."