An ultra-conservative Islamist party plans to push for a stricter religious code in Egypt after claiming surprisingly strong gains in the first round of parliamentary elections.
Early signs suggest the Salafi Nour party could get as much as 30 per cent of the vote.
Spokesman Yousseri Hamad said it would put the party in a strong position to influence policy, although it is unclear how much power the new parliament will have with the military that took over from ousted president Hosni Mubarak still in power.
Salafis advocate a strict interpretation of Islam that includes a staunch segregation of the sexes and constraints on individual freedoms.
The Muslim Brotherhood also polled strongly, indicating a trend that could give the religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key US ally.
He added that his party is willing to co-operate with secular, liberal and Islamist forces, “if it will serve the interest of the nation”.
This week’s vote, held in nine provinces, will determine about 30 per cent of the 498 seats in the People’s Assembly, parliament’s lower house. Two more rounds, ending in January, will cover Egypt’s other 18 provinces.
The new parliament, in theory, has been directed to select a 100-member panel to draft Egypt’s new constitution.
The strong showing of the Islamic hardliners worries many liberals and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.
“We want democracy and what they want is anything but democratic,” said Amir Fouad, a Coptic Christian.
“They want Egypt to be like Saudi Arabia, all Islamic. I feel like it will be very hard for me to live in Egypt if they rule. They will take Egypt backward.”
More than 5,000 protesters demonstrated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday to call for a speedier transition to civilian rule and trials for security officers accused of killing protesters.
Large crowds marched into the square carrying dozens of coffins wrapped in Egyptian flags to represent those killed in clashes with police near the square in the week before the elections.
Islamist groups did not join the protests, hanging their hopes on the election results.
While the number of protesters was smaller than in recent weeks, many said they had voted but still considered protest necessary.