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Sidelined by election results, Egypt's liberals to 'rebuild from below zero'

Islamist parties were more organised and quicker to pick up support after uprising.

People gather outside a polling station beside an electoral slogan for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party that reads
People gather outside a polling station beside an electoral slogan for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party that reads "We bring good to Egypt" in Toukh, El Kalubia governorate, northeast of Cairo on Tuesday.

CAIRO // The liberal groups that were the vanguard of last year's protests are facing the challenge of remaining relevant in a political future that will be dominated by Islamist groups after voting for lower house of parliament ended yesterday,

"We are going to start not from scratch, but from below zero," said Ahmed Said, the head of the liberal alliance known as the Egypt Bloc and winner of a parliamentary seat in Cairo.

"Unfortunately, we now see a much larger right-wing majority in the parliament. There is going to be a lot of conflict on issues like the constitution."

The elections chronicled the abrupt reversal of fortune for the youth groups and liberal political movements that took to the streets on January 25 last year to demand the end of the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Nine months after Mr Mubarak resigned on February 11, Egyptians turned out to vote largely for the conservative Islamists who were quick to organise political parties in the aftermath of the uprising.

The Egypt Bloc - an alliance of the Free Egyptians, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and Al Tagammu Party - expects to have won about 40 seats in the 508-member People's Assembly, when final results are announced this month.

Al Wafd, an older liberal party that ran independently from the bloc, is expected to win about the same number, giving the combined liberal groups fewer than a fifth of the seats.

The Freedom and Justice party, founded by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, won more than 40 per cent of the seats, and the Salafist Al Nour party won about 20 per cent, according to the parties and election observers. The success of Al Nour, whose members have espoused a vision of a more conservative country, where alcohol sales are more tightly restricted and foreigners prevented from wearing bikinis at beach resorts, was the biggest surprise of the elections.

Before the uprising last year, they were known for opposing democratic representation and avoiding criticism of the government.

Ahmed Morsy, who was involved in training sessions for political parties with the National Democratic Institute last year, said it was apparent after Mr Mubarak's resignation that the "Salafis were hungry, in terms of bringing people to political training sessions, campaigning, learning about democracy".

"It was clear from the beginning that the Islamists in general were more organised and knew how to talk to people," he said.

"The liberal parties thought they had the best strategies, all the information, but to be honest, they didn't."

The liberal campaigns were riven with disagreements and were criticised for their haughty approach to the democratic transition.

"They refused to be organised," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was imprisoned for two years by the Mubarak regime on allegations of using illegal funding for election observers and "defaming Egypt's image abroad".

"They disdained the word partnership," said Mr Ibrahim. "As a result, they spent six or seven months doing nothing... The signs were there that the revolution was going to be hijacked and it was."

A combination of demands from liberal groups in the weeks before the elections for a delay in voting and creation of a new civilian interim government, and clashes with the authorities in Tahrir Square led to a greater defeat in the elections, he said.

"That [was] naive, idealistic and, in my opinion, foolish," he said of the calls for changes to the timetable just before voting was set to begin. "I can understand the frustration of these youngsters. They started the revolution and they ended up losing it to others."

The losses have already led the Egypt Bloc to begin reconsidering its election strategies.

"The lesson we learnt is that we have to reach people in their homes and touch the lives of people like what the Muslim Brotherhood have been doing for decades," said Mr Said of the Free Egyptians party. "It's not about advertisements on satellite television and billboards."

The battle will now turn to the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, scheduled for January 29, but the contours of the new democratically elected government have already been drawn, analysts said. Of the 270 seats of the Shura Council, 180 will be elected and 90 appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

The first major issue that will be debated by the new legislative bodies is the constitution, which was suspended by Scaf after Hosni Mubarak resigned as president on February 11 and will be rewritten by an assembly chosen by members of parliament.

But even with a majority of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the Islamists have not emerged unified.

The Freedom and Justice party will have to play the role of arbiter between, on the one side, Al Nour, who will push for a more conservative adoption of Sharia, and on the other, liberal groups angling for a more secular, civil state.

bhope@thenational.ae