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Egyptian academics fear rise of Islamist political parties

Muslim Brotherhood members help voters find their registration numbers before voting outside a polling station in the Manial neighbourhood of Cairo on Nov. 28, 2011.

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images/Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Islamist parties appear to have won a majority of votes in the pivotal first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections conducted this week. If confirmed Thursday, the results from voting in Cairo, Alexandria and other key centres will put Egypt on course to forming an Islamist government.

The prospect sends a shiver down the spine of Mohamed Awad, director of the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Centre. He and many other Egyptians fear the creation of an Islamist state might curtail certain academic and other freedoms.

"This is a test," Dr. Awad says, "a test of how we, the Egyptian people, respond to the challenge of defining our national identity."

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Dr. Awad and his team of 30 scholars are dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the ancient city of Alexandria and to proposing options for the city's future design. He worries that future may be in doubt.

Preliminary returns of Monday and Tuesday's voting indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party will emerge as the leading vote-getter in the one-third of the country's 27 governorates that were at stake – and by a wide margin. The returns also show that another Islamist party, the fundamentalist Nour Party, has done surprising well, finishing with as many or more than the number of votes garnered by the secular Free Egyptians Party.

Taken together, the two leading Islamist factions will likely have more than 50 per cent of the seats determined to this point, and will also have substantial momentum going into the other two rounds of voting in other governorates over the next six weeks.

The prospect of an Egypt with an Islamist majority greatly concerns neighbouring nations. Israel has a peace treaty with Egypt. Jordan fears the growth of Islamist parties. Saudi Arabia counts on Egypt to maintain a pro-American foreign policy. And the Palestinian Authority worries that its rival, the Islamist Hamas party, will enjoy a burst of new popularity in the West Bank and Gaza.

"The rise of the Islamists is probably inevitable," said Dr. Awad, whose cultural think tank is based in the spectacular Library of Alexandria, a dramatic-looking modern institution that appears to almost rise from sea at the exact site of the original library, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

"Too many people in this country are needy," he said. "They had nowhere else to turn."

"My fear," said Dr. Awad, whose office is surrounded by models of Alexandria's prospective future waterfront, "is that the more extreme Islamists, the Salafists, may eventually come to power."

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That could happen, he explains, if the country's economy collapses in the next few months. "In that event," he says, "there will be another revolution, a revolution of the poor, and this one will be very violent."

The winners are apt to be the most fundamentalist of Islamists, he thinks.

Dr. Awad, a native of Alexandria, said he and other secular Muslim members of the intelligentsia are voting as one for the leading secular party, the Free Egyptians. "But it won't be enough," he said.

Even if the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood is the dominant political force, it, too, may slide into discriminatory policies. At stake, he fears, could be control of the universities and academic freedoms. Will projects such as his be made to adhere to a singular Islamist interpretation of history and of the future?

In his Alexandria Quartet tetralogy, novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote that this historic city "is half imagined, yet wholly real."

Dr. Awad worries that the city that was the hub of the Greco-Egyptian world might become quite unreal and its culture wholly imagined.

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