Egyptian Islamists are poised to emerge as the big winners in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, a complex electoral process that will be held in phases until March.

The first round of voting, to fill one-third of the seats in the lower house of parliament, was held on November 28–29, with run-off votes held on December 5–6. Although the official results have not yet been released, early reports based on partial results indicate that the first round of elections was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which received about 37 percent of the vote.

The biggest surprise was the number of votes cast for the ultra-radical Islamist Nour (“Light”) Party, which came in second with about 24 percent of the vote, eclipsing the secular, liberal Egyptian Bloc coalition, which placed third with 13 percent.

The Nour Party is an extremist Islamist group supported by many Salafists—i.e., Muslim fundamentalists who seek to emulate the behavior of the earliest Muslim converts. They want to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia (Islamic law) that would impose rigid restrictions such as banning alcohol, compelling women to wear modest clothing, and discriminating against non-Muslims. Although many Salafists, like the Amish, cultivate bushy beards without moustaches, they differ in that they aggressively seek to impose their beliefs on others.

Egyptian Salafists have distanced themselves from the more pragmatic views of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which has modulated its rhetoric to avoid scaring Egyptian liberals and Egypt’s Western allies. Behind the scenes, however, the Muslim Brotherhood is purging many of its moderates.

The disastrous showing of Egyptian liberal and secular political parties, which played an important role in mobilizing protests against the Mubarak regime earlier this year, should come as no surprise. The Mubarak regime did a much more thorough job of dismantling such opposition parties than it did in repressing the Muslim Brotherhood, which it permitted to run in the 2005 elections.

This head start helped magnify the advantages of the Muslim Brotherhood in the current elections, in which it was much better organized and better financed and was able to tap into grassroots networks based in mosques. Egypt’s military leaders also reportedly entered into an “unholy alliance” with Islamist political parties before the elections to covertly funnel money, food, and security support to the Freedom and Justice, Nour, and allied Salafist parties.

Although Egypt’s liberal activists received a lot of coverage in Western media for their “Facebook Revolution,” they represented only a tiny portion of Egypt’s population. Their high-tech networking was effective in organizing protests but not so much in propelling a political campaign in a country in which roughly one-third of the people are illiterate. As a result, the promise of Egypt’s “Arab Spring” is likely to be dissipated in an Islamist winter.