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    Egypt’s Islamists in driver’s seat

    It will be more than a month before we get final, official results of elections to Egypt’s lower house. But even partial results from the first round (runoff voting is still taking place) tell the story: Islamists have won a stunning mandate.

    The Muslim Brotherhood’s coalition collected 37 per cent or so of votes, close to what many had predicted. The shocker is that the next-biggest bloc, with a quarter of the votes so far, is that of the Salafists – religious fundamentalists who back a rigid application of sharia.

    The secular Egyptian Bloc came in third with about 13 per cent. Lump in smaller liberal or secular parties, and the folks who launched the Tahrir revolution can claim at most 25-per-cent support.

    The second and third rounds of voting aren’t going to improve things for the liberals. This round included Cairo and Alexandria, the country’s two largest cities. Egypt’s educated middle class has already had its say.

    Where does the Islamist sweep leave the army? Pretty much sidelined. If the result had been a rough religious-secular balance, it might have played one side against the other to preserve its own dominance. But the Brothers now have a much stronger claim to legitimacy than the military does.

    The stark fact is the Brothers are now Egypt’s centrist party. The West can forget about keeping it out of power; that would take a transparently anti-democratic coup, and it would probably fail.

    So the question is which way do the Brothers jump? Given how the seats appear to be splitting, they have their pick of partners. The Salafists would happily join them in government to advance their agenda. The liberals, I believe, would happily join them to block that agenda.

    The Salafists might seem like the easy, logical choice but they’re not. Egypt is nearly broke, mostly because tourists are staying away. A Saudi-style religious regime is not going to revive that industry, attract foreign investment or win IMF help. Jobs, poverty, health and basic education were already massive problems, ones the Brothers must make a dent in if they hope to ever get re-elected.

    Alliance with the intolerant Salafists would spark a disastrous exodus of the urban elite. Better to bring the liberals into a broad-based coalition. The best gesture the Brothers could make would be to back an internationally respected secular figure, like Mohamed ElBaradei, for president in mid-2012.

    The Arabist blog, as usual, has plenty of details on how the voting has gone. Its charts are especially useful:



    Looking at the last chart - I am curious as to why the Red Sea region is unique in being the only region where the secular parties had a positive differential over the religious parties. 

    The Red Sea area has basically one industry: tourism. The Salafists want to see the sexes segregated, women veiled, and certainly no mixed bathing. If they get their way, whole resort towns would go out of business. Their bloc got no votes at all in the area, though the less rigid Muslim Brotherhood pulled in more than 40 per cent.

    An even simpler explanation might be that they calculated their chances of winning a seat were negligible, and didn't waste the effort to put up a party list.

    I wrote above that the parliamentary election, though still incomplete, had established a body with at least as much claim to legitimacy as the military. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appears to disagree, reasserting its demand to oversee the creation of a council to write a new constitution:

    Before the voting, the military's demand to name 80 per cent of the 100-member council brought thousands of protesters of all stripes into the streets. Now, SCAF's apparent hope is to split off the Coptic Christians, liberals and secularists fearful of living under a theocracy. It's an undemocratic, divisive and dangerous ploy, and I hope it's seen as such and rejected.

    The Muslim Brotherhood lacks a parliamentary majority; it will need a partner to govern. That partner could come from either the more secular or the more religious side. If secularists, liberals and Christians reverse course to side with the army, they will be making the Brothers' choice for them -- and they'll ultimately end up with the theocratic state they fear. 

    Good analysis of what's driving the Islamist wave:

    Well, I suspected all along the Arab Spring in Egypt was ripe for a islamic theocratic takeover ...sort of a coup de repos, i.e., a move that leaves the main features of a situation unchanged ... no publicly elected government representing the people yet, but leaves political rivals at a disadvantage ... our way or the highway. For the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't have enough of the public in their arena to take control of the government, but they have enough to force their theocracy onto the entire nation ... enough to make people think things weren't so bad under Mubarak after all.

    I have said in the past their big mistake was not having a plan outlining where they would go once Mubarak was gone. They left the field wide open for a faction to manipulate and steer the process towards a governing principle that in all likelyhood will be far worst than what they were experiencing under Mubarak. As much as the public hated the military in the past, they just might be their saviour this time around.

    I appreciate your comment, Beetle, but I mostly disagree. Sixty to 70 per cent of Egyptian voters chose to support some Islamist party, so I don’t see which “public” you think wants the military to step in and save it. Among the other 30 per cent or so, there is plenty of post-election concern, but it is focused more on the Salafists’ success than the Brotherhood’s. I have yet to hear anyone of prominence say, “This democracy notion was a bad idea; let’s let the military retake control” – although no doubt some Copts and backers of the former regime feel that way. I would guess 15 per cent of the population, give or take 5.

    Fact is, the Brothers, despite being officially banned, had already been the largest opposition bloc in parliament when they joined the activists in Tahrir Square . Their platform and record were well-known, and their weight is what pushed the revolution past the tipping point. So the idea that they hijacked it is nonsense; they were crucial to it.

    Would I have preferred a better showing by the liberals and secularists? You bet. But considering the few months they had to form parties from scratch and to campaign, 30 per cent is nothing to scoff at. Especially when the only experience of secular rule any Egyptian knew was the corrupt kleptocracy of the National Democratic Party, and Islamists had been sowing seeds of support for decades with charitable work among the poor.

    Will there be the theocratic takeover you fear? A lot depends on how the secular bloc plays its cards. The MB want a state that fully reflects Islamic values, but they also say they are committed to multi-party democracy, and would much prefer to ally with secularists than Salafists. As I stressed in the OP, secularists must be pragmatic to have any say in Egypt’s direction. Accept a junior position in an MB-led coalition, in return for getting a cabinet presence and civil rights imbedded in the constitution. Ideally, that national-unity government would put forward a consensus candidate for president.

    It may sound naïve, but secularists and Brothers need to join forces to tackle Egypt’s enormous problems if either are to survive. The Salafists will exploit parliamentary failure to show democracy doesn’t work and theirs is the only way. They are the real danger.

    (I get what you say about the benefit of formulating a long-term plan, but the vote results suggest Islamists still would have won. Plus, the revolution’s goals evolved: at first, an end to the hated state of emergency and fresh, fair elections, then an end to Interior Ministry violence against protesters, then Mubarak’s departure, then Suleiman’s, then Tantawi’s, and only recently subordination of the military to civilian rule.)

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