Egypt’s Islamists On the Verge: Will They Make Campaign Rhetoric Reality?

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Mohammed Asad / AP

Egyptians stand in line waiting to cast their votes outside an election center in in Qalioubiya, Egypt, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012.

As Egyptians vote this week in the third and final round of elections for the lower house of parliament, the country prepares to usher in its first ever Islamist-led government, and the second Islamist parliament to be elected in the region since the start of the Arab revolutions last winter.

In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda swept the polls. In Egypt, the slightly more conservative Muslim Brotherhood will take the majority. And in Libya, the outcome of any future polls will likely yield even more conservative results.

(PHOTOS: Police and protesters clash in Cairo.)

In each case, the politics and rhetoric espoused for decades by the toppled Arab dictators’ Islamist opposition will finally get put to the test: Can they deliver? Many Egyptian voters say the Islamist experiment will be a good thing. “The people we voted for today—we’ll only vote for them again if they do well,” said Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a retired bureaucrat who cast his vote in an industrial suburb north of Cairo on Tuesday. But liberals and youth activists warn the test could yield some shocking changes to the relatively secular system left behind by ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Islamist leaders were slow to condemn the ruling military council’s crackdown and raids on liberal NGOs last week; and many of their supporters at the polls on Tuesday argued that the NGOs deserved it for receiving foreign funding. Officials from both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-Islamist Nour party—likely to hold the second largest majority—have also said that they would not allow a Christian to become president. “This is not fanaticism. There is a logical argument behind this,” Saad al-Husseini, a high-ranking member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told Al-Arabiya television on the eve of the vote. And some Islamists, including the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood have called for a reexamination of Egypt’s 1979 treaty with Israel, arguing that Egyptians have the right to re-negotiate any agreement formed without popular consent (in this case, a treaty signed by Mubarak’s predecessor and fellow autocrat, Anwar Sadat.)

(READ: Islamists or the junta? Egypt’s challenge in 2012.)

All this could signal an imminent and radical shift in both diplomacy and internal law for the Middle East’s largest country. Or it might not. The Brotherhood has repeatedly stressed that it will seek to form a broad coalition government. And one of the group’s most popular politicians, who is almost certain to take office after this week’s vote, seemed to dismiss all the rhetoric as having little impact on reality. “The parliament has the right to revise whatever was passed without the public’s consent,” Mohamed El-Beltagy told TIME on Tuesday. “But to revise does not necessarily mean to eliminate.” And Egyptian voters—the majority of whom actively have chosen an Islamist parliament–seem eager to see how the experiment plays out.