(Updates with voter comments in 12th paragraph.)
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The two Islamist blocs that led the initial round of elections for Egypt’s first parliament since the removal of former President Hosni Mubarak are competing to consolidate their gains in the latest round of the vote.
Voting ends today for the second phase of the contest, which covers Aswan, Menoufiya and seven other provinces. As the election moves away from the capital and into the countryside, which has traditionally shown strong support for Islamist groups, the newly formed Salafi Nour party will be tested against the older and less conservative Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won the first round, followed by Nour and the secular Egyptian Bloc.
The stronger-than-expected support for Nour “threatens to drag the political discourse to the right and into debates over identity and religion rather than political structures and economic reforms, which is what the Brotherhood would prefer,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
The emergence of an Islamist-dominated parliament may give the country’s ruling generals additional arguments for resisting pressure to hand over power. After the initial ballot, a member of the army council said the parliament alone may not be representative enough to be entrusted with drafting a new constitution. The council says it will stay at the helm until a president is elected next year.
Lack of clarity and wrangling over the details of the handover to civilians have helped push bond yields to record highs and the currency to a seven-year low. The economy has been growing at the slowest pace in a decade and faces risks including currency devaluation and surging debt costs.
The pound has weakened almost 4 percent this year, to 6.02 per dollar, even as the central bank spent almost half its foreign exchange reserves. The government pays more than 15 percent to borrow in pounds over nine months, while yields on dollar bonds due in 2020 surged close to 8 percent yesterday and have jumped by a percentage point in the past week. Tourism and foreign investment have slumped since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.
Salafis follow a strict interpretation of Islam, often emulating what they consider to be the practices of the earliest Muslims. Unlike the Brotherhood, Salafis largely stayed away from politics under Mubarak. Instead, they spread their ideology through preaching in mosques, and later via satellite channels.
Religion and Politics
Almost 19 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in this round, to decide 180 seats in parliament’s lower house, which has 498 elected members. The results of the elections won’t be clear until mid-January, after a third and final phase of voting.
In Menoufiya, an exchange between two women before voting stations opened yesterday highlighted the debate among many Egyptians about the role of religion in the country’s future.
“Religion and politics shouldn’t mix because politics could tarnish religion,” said 24-year-old Rania Abdel Wahed. “You cannot separate religion from the state,” replied Hasnaa Belal, 36. “The problem is that people strayed away from religion.”
Secular parties are fighting a rearguard action after their first-round defeat by Islamists.
‘We, the Revolutionaries’
“Although I know this parliament won’t get us anywhere, we still have to prove that we, the revolutionaries, exist,” Bassem Diab, a 27-year-old art director, said outside a polling station in Giza today. He said he voted for the Revolution Continues alliance, made up of groups that led the uprising against Mubarak.
The Brotherhood’s history and experience give it an advantage over such political newcomers, said Abdel Hakim Adel, a 23-year-old tour guide also voting in Giza. “The Freedom and Justice Party didn’t just appear after the revolution, they have been fighting for power for decades,” he said. “I felt they are good people.”
The head of military police, Hamdy Badeen, said the army “stands at an equal distance” from all the political groups contesting the elections, Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency reported. “The army has no interest to be served by siding with liberals or the Brotherhood or leftists or others,” MENA cited him as saying.
The Brotherhood’s party gave an early indication that it’s ready to challenge the army after winning a mandate from voters. After General Mouktar el-Moula questioned the parliament’s representative status in a briefing to foreign journalists, the Brotherhood’s party refused to take part in an army-appointed civilian advisory body. Mamdouh Shahine, another general, said later that the military would respect the election results and wouldn’t seek to shape the constitution-drafting body.
--Editors: Digby Lidstone, Ben Holland, Karl Maier.
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