Islamist parties appeared to have swept the first round of elections for an Egyptian parliament that is likely to erase the secular rule of Hosni Mubarak with a politics more intensely driven by religion.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party was projected to have won at least 40% of the vote, according to unofficial results leaked by election judges. That number indicates that the group, whose religious rigor and social programs bolstered it for decades against a repressive police state, is emerging as Egypt's most potent political force.
Official results were scheduled to be released Thursday. The election commission pushed the announcement to Friday, saying a larger-than-expected turnout slowed the counting of ballots.
It was too early — and confusing — to predict what would unfold over the next six weeks in a multistage parliamentary contest. The unofficial results were from nine of the nation's 27 governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, the two most populous cities. But they suggest that Egyptians, voting in their first free elections in more than 50 years, want a government imbued with Islamic law.
Brotherhood members were jubilant over the political legitimacy the organization has been denied since it was founded by an activist schoolteacher in 1928.
This means the Freedom and Justice Party "is capable of winning a majority of the incoming parliament and forming a government," Mohamed Mursi, the party's chairman, told Egyptian news media.
That sense of victory echoes in prominent voices across the Middle East and North Africa after the upheavals of the "Arab Spring." The moderate Islamist party Nahda dominated Tunisia's elections in October and Islamists in Libya are demanding a more pious nation than envisioned by the late Moammar Kadafi. These elements are hardening the Arab world's attitudes toward the U.S. and Israel.
Cairo's historical regional influence hints that this moment of seminal change is shaping the contours of a burgeoning political Islam in much the same way that late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser attempted to inspire the region in the 1960s with his ultimately failed brand of pan-Arabism.
Islamists are in a "pole position to win a considerable share of power in the Arab Spring," said Mustafa Kamel Sayed, a political scientist at Cairo University. "Many Arab countries tried socialism, communism and capitalism, and none of them worked well in the eyes of the people.
"So now the people are inclined to give Islamists a chance."
The prowess of the Brotherhood and the surprisingly strong showing by the ultraconservative Salafi party Al Nour, which is projected to finish second with 20% of the vote, had liberals and secularists worried that Islamists will set the country's agenda, including the drafting of a constitution. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of secular parties headed by Naguib Sawiris, a Christian telecommunications billionaire, was expected to come in third.
"Egyptians have never practiced real democracy … and Islamists have lured thousands of voters under the name of religion," said Abdel Rahman Samir, an activist and former member of the Jan. 25 Youth Coalition. "I fear some Islamists regard their religious agendas with a much higher importance than the interests of the country."
The realigning of the established order will sweep political neophytes into government at a time when Egypt faces massive economic and social problems. Mubarak purged Islamist groups and denied them political rights. Now, leading Salafi figures, such as Abdel Monem Shahat, who is expected to win a parliament race, also appear to have little regard for civil liberties. He has said Islam forbids democracy and he reportedly told his supporters that they would go to heaven if they voted for him.
Such comments have unnerved secularists, but they are also troublesome for the Brotherhood, which is more politically flexible than ultraconservatives. But if the Brotherhood can't forge alliances with centrist secular parties to form a majority, it is likely to enter a coalition with the Salafis. Such a scenario would lead to intense battles between Islamists over religion's role in public life.
In 2005, Brotherhood members running as independents won 20% of the seats in parliament but were quickly marginalized by Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. The Islamists will certainly be more formidable when they return to parliament early next year. They will, however, be subject to the nation's ruling military council, which refuses to hand over power to a civilian government until a president is elected in June.
Tension has grown in recent weeks between the military and the Brotherhood. The Islamist group said this week that it had the mandate to appoint an interim government. The army, which recently named a veteran of Mubarak's government as prime minister, rejected the proposal. Such conflicts are expected to increase, especially if, as expected, the military moves to limit the influence of Islam in the constitution.
Voting in the second round will begin Dec. 14 and the third round Jan. 10. Final results for the new parliament are expected a few days later.
Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.