A surprise showing has given the Muslim Brotherhood its strongest political foothold ever heading into the second round of parliamentary elections -- held on Sunday -- in Egypt. The vote would be hinting at what democracy might look like in the Arab world's largest country.
Secularists and Christians, however, were unsettled by the Brotherhood's showing in the first round where the country's oldest Islamic fundamentalist group took 34 seats, doubling its presence in parliament.
The victories have established the Brotherhood as the leader of the opposition and have proven what the government has always feared: that the banned group is popular among the Egyptians, despite -- or because of -- frequent crackdowns and the government's media campaign against it.
The unanswered question remains: Does Brotherhood success stem from its platform -- summed up in its slogan, "Islam is the solution," vague but appealing to some in conservative Egypt -- or to widespread discontent with President Hosni Mubarak's government.
Stunned by its own showing, the Brotherhood expects to win more in Sunday's vote and the December 01 third round, which are being held in provinces that include its traditional strongholds.
Some members of the Coptic Christian community find it worrying that the Brotherhood is gaining ground.
Georget Qelliny, a Copt and a former lawmaker, said: "What worries me is the (Brotherhood's) vague call for implementing Islamic law."
She added she was skeptical of the Brotherhood's pledge to protect the rights of all citizens. Rafik Habib, an Evangelical Coptic Christian and social scientist, said his co-religionists were worried about the
Brotherhood's slogan, "Islam is the solution." But Habib, who has studied and written extensively about the group, discounted such fears.
"The Brotherhood was never anti-Copt... . It's important to open a real dialogue with Brotherhood, and the Islamic trend in general," he said. Secular observers such as Magdi el-Galad, the editor of the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm, was not so sanguine.
In a recent column he suggested the Mubarak government was allowing the Brotherhood to make non-threatening political gains against the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) as part of its campaign to "wave with the 'Islamist scare' once again ... without taking into consideration the repercussions, and without being able to put the 'scare' back in the bottle."
"Whatever is the secret or the reason, what is happening now puts Egypt on edge of danger," he warned.
But secular pro-democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim says greater freedoms in Egypt means recognising the Brotherhood's influence. He wrote a controversial column entitled "Islam can vote, if we let it."
"I know Copts, women are alarmed, the U.S. will be concerned," Ibrahim told The Associated Press. He said there is no reason for that as "it's a very pragmatic group."
"If we are true democrats, we have to accept the outcome of elections," said Ibrahim, scoffing at the group's critics that say, if they come to power, this will be the last elections.
"This is nonsense, the group has never been in power, never tested," he added.
The United States has been urging Mubarak, its steadfast ally in the Middle East, to allow greater democracy in a country he has ruled nearly unquestioned for 24 years. But US officials are also eyeing the Brotherhood with concern.
"I think there are some serious questions about the extent to which some of those parties would defend those rights, if they were in power," especially the rights of women and religious freedom, Elizabeth Cheney, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said in an Associated Press interview earlier this fall.
"A willingness to participate in the democratic system isn't proof of that somebody is a democrat. You have to be willing to protect that system and defend the rights of others," she said. The Brotherhood won 34 seats in the first round, up from only 15 in the outgoing parliament. The ruling NDP seized 112, after joining candidates who ran as independents, in the 454-member legislature.
The NDP is expected to retain a large majority in the body. But the Brotherhood's showing is more than about numbers. After the first round, it's already stronger than the entire opposition bloc was in the outgoing parliament.
Brotherhood lawmakers are likely to be a more energised and outspoken force in parliament than the traditional opposition parties. Critics fear they will push their conservative religious agenda.
The group calls for the implementation of Islamic law in Egypt and promotes veiling for women and increased "public morality."
But it insists it is a moderate wing of political Islam and paints itself as a proponent for democratic reform. It has tried to reach out to Christians and women, with slogans like "Copts are sons of the nation" appearing during recent demonstrations by the group.
If it can garner a total of 65 seats, the Brotherhood would be able to nominate a candidate to run for president in 2011 elections.
The election wins already boost its campaign to be legalised as a political party, something the government has vowed never to allow. Brotherhood leaders say they expect the NDP to pull out whatever dirty tricks it can to prevent further embarrassing gains in the next two rounds, in which about 100 Brotherhood candidates are running. The first round was plagued by allegations of intimidation of opposition supporters and mass voting by government backers.
Brotherhood election workers have already complained that security forces banned campaign meetings in some locations among the nine provinces where voting took place Sunday. There were 1,706 candidates from different parties and movements competing in 72 constituencies.
The movement was founded by Hassan el-Banna in 1928, as an Islamic resistance movement to British occupation, and was banned in 1954, though it renounced violence in the 1970s. It has branches in many Arab countries -- forming a strong opposition bloc in parliament in Jordan, for example -- and the militant group Hamas grew out of its ranks among Palestinians.