A new political era in Egypt began Saturday as Islamist parties won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliamentary elections to inherit a nation mired in economic crisis and desperate to move beyond military rule and the corrupt legacy of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's dominant political and religious force, won 47% of the 498 seats in the lower house of parliament, according to official final results. The ultraconservative Salafi Islamist party Al Nour won nearly 25%, followed by the secular parties New Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc, with about 9% each.
The results confirm the dramatic transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which for decades was banned from politics and endured the mass arrest and torture of its members. The victory by the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is a potent sign that political Islam is emerging from a year of uprisings to replace secular autocrats across the Middle East and North Africa.
A new parliament "would not have seen the light if it wasn't for the pure blood of the martyrs who triggered this revolution," Freedom and Justice said in a statement. "The party believes that Egypt's renaissance and development demands participation of all sects of this nation to fulfill this great responsibility."
The elections were a sobering lesson for young activists whose nascent parties were no match for the grass-roots networks and entwined religious and political message of the Islamists. The liberal activists helped ignite the revolution that brought down Mubarak but, winning only seven seats, they have been surpassed by more formidable political powers.
The Brotherhood's euphoria will quickly be confronted by the nation's troubles. The new parliament, expected to hold its first session Monday, faces enormous problems: unemployment, inflation, shrinking foreign investment, labor strikes, declining tourism, and foreign currency reserves that have tumbled to about $10 billion from $36 billion.
The relatively moderate Brotherhood and the puritanical Salafis are likely to battle over how deeply Islam should shape the constitution and be ingrained in public life. Both parties have said social and economic challenges are the most pressing concerns, but the Salafis, who receive funding from Persian Gulf nations, are certain to push for an Egypt more rooted in sharia, or Islamic law.
The Brotherhood will turn to "vital political and economic priorities rather than anything related to religion," said Ammar Ali Hassan, an analyst at the Middle East Center for Political Studies. "They might face constant pressures from less understanding Islamists like Salafis, who are keen on religious priorities, but Freedom and Justice won a [near] majority … and can easily shrug off that pressure."
That may mean the Brotherhood seeking alliances with secular parties. In its statement Saturday, the group espoused political compromise, saying the country "needs everyone to abandon personal interests and work for the sake of Egypt and its sons."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the parliament will be operating under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country when Mubarak was overthrown in February. The military has agreed to step aside after a president is elected in June. Protests continue against its rule, but the army is not likely to loosen its grip until it is assured that the new government does not curtail its power.
Analysts and politicians have suggested that the military and the Brotherhood have reached a deal in which the Islamists can press ahead on religious matters if the military can retain much of its dominance. Such a scenario has been an increasing worry for liberals and secularists.
The Brotherhood has denied making such an agreement, and its leader, Mohamed Badie, told an Egyptian TV channel that the army would be "held accountable for any mistakes" that led to the deaths of protesters in recent months.
Hours after the election results were announced, state TV reported that the army had ordered the release of nearly 2,000 prisoners tried in military courts, including activists and prominent blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad. The move was seen as a gesture by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to ease tension between protesters and the army before the first anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution.
"The relation between the Brotherhood and the army has been a tricky one," said Nabil Abdel Fattah at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "They have many mutual interests.... It's a tactical rather than a strategical pact that will end in few months, but for the time being, the Brotherhood won't clash with the army at any expense."
Fleishman is a Times staff writer and Hassan is a researcher in The Times' Cairo bureau.