The growing power of Egypt’s Islamists
July 31, 2011 by admin
The pro-democracy Egyptian revolution is heading towards producing results contrary to the expectation of those who spearheaded it.
The Islamist parties now stand a good chance to win an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections in November, and also contest successfully the presidential election. This outcome would be alarming for secularist pro-democracy elements and many regional and international actors, Israel and the US in particular, but it would need to be embraced as part and parcel of process of Egypt’s democratisation journey.
According to an Aljazeera public opinion survey, released on July 7, 2011, nearly 50 per cent of those polled indicated first preference for the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the Freedom and Justice Party. Another 27 per cent expressed support for the Salafist cluster or what is now called Nour Party. Although there are some ideological and operational differences between the two parties, both are nonetheless Islamist, advocating political Islam as the framework for Egypt’s transformation.
A parliamentary electoral victory, with support from some, if not all, Salafists, will enable the Muslim Brotherhood to form a government in its own right, headed by a prime minister from its ranks or beholden to it. So far the party has denied it plans to field a candidate for the presidential election. But this does not mean that it will fail to support a preferred candidate. As the situation stands, none of the pro-democracy secularist figures, such as the former Egyptian foreign minister and head of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, and the ex-boss of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed Elberiddi, who are both seeking the presidential position, is likely to harness sufficient votes to beat a Brotherhood-endorsed candidate. The result may well be Muslim Brotherhood dominance in Egyptian politics.
These developments can easily be viewed as alarming by those who have historically viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a menace to Egyptian and regional stability. However, this need not be the case. In any event, the Islamists, who are not homogeneous in their political and social disposition by any means, are unlikely to be in a position to establish a theocratic order, for example, similar to what has developed in Iran. Although the Saudi-backed Salafists remain a wild card, the same cannot be said about the Muslim Brotherhood. As the oldest party since its foundation in 1928, it has learned through bitter experiences that if it fails to secure popular support for its policies, it will have little chance of hanging on to power for too long, should it achieve electoral victory. The party’s mainstream leadership seems to have already shifted its posture in pursuit of centre-right realistic policy priorities and goals, and recognised the fact that the Egyptian society is a mix of 90 per cent Muslim and 10 per cent Coptic Christian, and that the country’s military leadership is pro-secular, with close ties with the United States.
Whilst a majority of Egyptians are devout Muslims, there is a great number amongst them that they do not want Islam to underpin the operation of their state and society. And it is this critical mass that is most likely to remain determined in ensuring that the Egyptian revolution stays on course to deliver a democratic rather than an Islamist political transformation. In this, they can count on the support of the military leadership and the international community. The February revolution has delivered Egyptians a new era of awareness and expectations. A failure on the part of any governments – Islamist or secular – to respond to this development effectively could easily result in the failure of that government, continued public turmoil and policy paralysis, which will not benefit anybody.
It is time for sober heads to prevail not only in Egypt, but also outside of the country. The US and some of the regional actors, most importantly Israel, bear a special responsibility in this respect. It would be a fundamental mistake if any of these actors were to try to circumvent Egypt’s process of democratisation in order to prevent the Islamists from coming to power through fair and free elections. Democracy cannot always be expected to deliver the kinds of outcomes that could fulfil their preferences.
Algeria’s past experience should be a warning to all. In January 1991, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on the verge of a winning a democratic election, but domestic secular liberal forces, supported by France, encouraged the military to intervene in order prevent FIS from achieving its goal. As the military cancelled the elections, and banned FIS and arrested many of its leaders, it helped generate the conditions for many radical members of FIS to go underground and take up arms, resulting in the gruesome killing of some 100,000 Algerians over the next decade. Algeria is still reeling from that episode, and its overall stability and security remains fragile.
Similarly, one must not look overlook the manner in which Israel and the US called for democratisation of the Palestinian politics, but when the Palestinian Authority held a general election in January 2006 and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas won it democratically, Israel and its supporters rejected the outcome. The failure to accommodate the results contributed substantially to acrimonious divisions among the Palestinians, with the West Bank remaining under the control of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas taking over Gaza Strip 18 months later. This complicated further the process for finding a viable resolution to the Palestinian problem.