Upshot of Egypt elections: Islamists are here to stay

 Muslim Brotherhood's success isn't surprising, but rise of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis is.

Tarek Fawzy/AP
Sobhi Saleh (r.) a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and candidate for parliament, speaks to voters at a polling station on the first day of parliamentary elections in Alexandria, Egypt, on Nov. 28.

Any discussion of Egypt's parliamentary election at this point needs to be filled with caveats. Full results for the lower house of parliament won't be known until January, at the earliest. Many Egyptians haven't voted yet. How much real power the next parliament will be able to exercise is uncertain. And it isn't clear how much influence it will have over the writing of a new constitution.

But voting in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections confirms something that was long generally assumed, but unproven: that the Muslim Brotherhood, through its new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is the most potent popular political force in Egypt.

More surprising is how well the Salafi Al Nour party is doing. Salafis are members of an ultraconservative branch of Islam who seek to emulate the early followers of the prophet Muhammad, and while they have much common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood, they are also far more extreme. They'd like to bring their strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, to public life. The Muslim Sisters wear head scarves; the wives and daughters of Salafis wear full niqabs (face veils) and frequently even gloves so that no skin is showing in public.

When Mubarak was pushed out in February, a lot of my middle-class and wealthy Egyptian friends in Cairo were convinced that their voices were going to be major ones in Egyptian politics. Sure, the Brothers were powerful, but they thought their influence was frequently overstated. Since the Brothers had been the only real opposition to Mubarak, with the ability to organize around mosques and their network of charities, it was natural for dissatisfied Egyptians to rally around them. But now, with more freedom for all kinds of social currents to organize, their influence would likely be dampened.

That's not how it's working out, and my friends in Cairo are looking on in alarm as it looks like the voters' alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood are the heavy beards and idiosyncratic ways of the Salafis. How strong have they looked so far? In Assiut, a city south of Cairo that probably has one of the country's highest proportions (if not the highest proportion) of Coptic Christians, the combined votes for the FJP and Al Nour were about 90,000 against 32,000 for the Egyptian Bloc, a secular list that would have been the natural choice for any Coptic voter or other Egyptian uncomfortable with Islamist politics.

Liberalism has been dealt a blow

What all this means is that liberalism in the basic sense of the word has been dealt a heavy blow in the next parliament. On some issues, the Brothers and the Salafis are in strong disagreement and their rivalry will prevent them from coming together as monolithic Islamist bloc. Al Nour was originally a member of the FJP-led list before pulling out, complaining that their candidates were not being given enough places at the top of the ticket.

The Muslim Brotherhood is already flexing its muscles. Senior leader Essam El Erian wrote in The Guardian yesterday that Egypt's military rulers, who hold executive power and theoretically have the right to appoint the next government, should step aside.

"The military council has so far honoured its pledge to hold elections and protect them. It should continue the process to the end and accept the results, and the rights and powers of parliament," he wrote. "It is impossible for millions of Egyptians to go to the polls and vote for a parliament without authority. So the military council must now announce the handover of legislative powers to parliament, and the caretaker government must present any new legislation to the parliament for approval."

Good and bad news for secularists

The risk now for the transition to full democracy is that some of the secular forces in Egypt will turn to the military as their protector. Many had lobbied in the months before the election for a delay, arguing they weren't ready to compete with the better-organized Brothers.

The good news for secular parties is that once a constitution is written and a new present elected, hopefully next year, there will probably be fresh parliamentary elections.

That means they have another chance to try to really organize and run as a cohesive force. Secular groups squandered much of the short time between the fall of Mubarak and the start of these elections, fighting among themselves over personalities and political programs while the Brother's army of supporters was going door to door across Egypt, canvassing voters with a simple, direct message: We're not corrupt, we are committed to social welfare, and our religious credentials are guarantors of fairness and honesty, not something to be feared.

Today in Cairo's liberal circles, there's speculation that alcohol will be outlawed, that the precarious position of Egypt's Copts will get worse. That hasn't happened yet, and it doesn't necessarily have to. But if there is to be true democracy in Egypt, it's clear that Islam is going to be a potent political force.

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