Egypt is on course to enter an uncharted era of Islamist rule after preliminary election results yesterday suggested the Muslim Brotherhood could secure nearly half the seats in parliament.
Official results are to be released today, but analysis gathered by local newspapers pointed to a crushing Brotherhood victory over Egypt's liberal forces.
The biggest surprise could lie in the success of the Al-Nour Party, or Party of Light, a fundamentalist Salafi group whose members aspire towards a literalist view of Islam. Early indications showed the party could finish in second place and take a quarter of the vote, an impressive feat for an organisation which did not exist until the fall of Hosni Mubarak early this year.
Judges overseeing the poll said that members of the liberal Egyptian Bloc coalition, which includes the Free Egyptians Party founded by a billionaire telecoms magnate, Naguib Sawiris, were also vying for second place.
The apparent success of Egypt's Islamic parties could give them a key role in shaping the country's future. The Muslim Brotherhood is already demanding the right to form a new government, and the group could also have a strong influence over how the next constitution is devised. But with the ruling Military Council planning to stay put until July, it remains unclear exactly what powers any new parliament will wield.
Dr Maha Azzam, of the Chatham House think-tank and an expert on Islamist movements, said the reported success of the Salafists – whose followers sometimes believe in stoning adulterers and other hardline sharia punishments – should not come as a surprise. "They have worked at the grassroots level for many years," she said. "They have gone unnoticed to a large extent because they did not engage in politics, but that did not mean their religious message was not strong."
Former President Hosni Mubarak tried to exploit Salafism as a counter-weight to the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, a process which spawned influential Salafi satellite channels which help disseminate the doctrine.
The main losers in Egypt's parliamentary elections could end up being the country's liberal and secular forces, many of whom represented some of the key players who helped bring down President Hosni Mubarak.
Voting for Egypt's lower house will not be completed until January, while elections to the upper house of parliament are to finish in March.