Muslim Brotherhood enters uncharted territory

After years in the political wilderness, Islamist party wins 45 per cent of votes in the Egyptian election

The balance of power which has been maintained in Egypt for more than half a century looks to have changed, with early election results suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood won a colossal victory in the parliamentary elections.

The group, which this time last year was an illegal organisation in Egypt, appears to have won about 45 per cent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly. Full results were due to be announced late last night.

The Muslim Brotherhood's success has placed it on a collision course with the ruling Military Council, an executive committee of generals which took power after Hosni Mubarak was deposed last year after 30 years as President.

In November, following a series of deadly protests in Cairo and other cities, the Military Council promised to step aside by 30 June this year and usher in a new period of civilian rule. Yet big questions still loom over the army's willingness – or even ability – to make good on its part of the deal.

The military's claws pierce deep into the Egyptian economy. Few people know exactly how far, but some estimates suggest it could control up to 30 per cent of the nation's business and enterprise, including stakes in agriculture, construction and the tourism industry. It has led some people to ask whether an institution which has enjoyed so much influence for so long will really be willing to walk away. In Egypt this week, the former US President Jimmy Carter suggested it was easier said than done. "I think to have an abrupt change in the totality of the military authority at the end of June or this year is more than we can expect," he said.

Yet the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to settle for anything which puts the brakes on its newfound political momentum. After nearly a century in the wilderness, during which its fortunes fluctuated from being the spiritual jump-board beneath the leaders of the 1952 coup, to vilified fifth columns under Mr Mubarak, the group founded by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna in the 1920s now has the ultimate goal of power firmly in its sights.

Candidates from the brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, trounced those of the Egyptian Bloc, a liberal coalition which was seen as the main counterbalance to Egypt's Islamists, but which won fewer than 10 per cent of the seats. With the ultra-religious Al Nour Party finishing in second place, political Islamists have now claimed a majority in parliament.