Poised for a Parliamentary Majority, Islamists Shed Restraint

Salafi Campaigners

For decades, Egyptians knew only fraudulent elections under the harsh constraints of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Faced with pervasive ballot fraud, violence and intimidation by the repressive security forces, they largely withdrew from the political process, choosing to boycott rather than casts ballots that had no hope of bringing about meaningful change. But in last week’s elections, Egyptians participated in unprecedented numbers, with 52 percent of eligible voters turning out at the polls on November 28-29.

The massive level of turnout proved that the political consciousness of Egyptians has been fundamentally transformed by the revolution. This newfound enthusiasm for political participation and pluralism has produced a spectrum of parties and movements unprecedented in their diversity. But ideological diversity inevitably gives rise to extremes, including the hardline fringe of the Islamist movement, whose Salafi candidates swept an unexpected 20 percent of the votes this week.

Looking at the Egyptian street today, the familiar image of the smiling well-dressed Egyptian man wearing a suit and that of the Egyptian woman wearing her hair down and dressed in a short skirt have been replaced by less modern styles that reflect conservative Wahhabi influence. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which failed to win a single seat during the semi-liberal era before 1952, is leading election returns and poised to claim at least 40 percent of the parliamentary seats.  While the Brotherhood has long been a powerful fixture in Egypt’s political scene, the rise of the hardline Salafis is a new phenomenon and begs the question: Where did this new surge in religious conservatism originate?

Before the 1952 military coup, Egyptian society was becoming increasingly modern and liberal in its character, beginning to resemble contemporary Tunisian society in its demographic and ideological makeup. But six decades of authoritarian rule took a serious toll on voter attitudes and reversed the liberalizing trend seen before 1952.

Authoritarianism supported the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and accelerated its project – Islamizing Egypt – which has now been in progress for 83 years. Some analysts have suggested that the strong military establishment that assumed power after the 1952 coup had the effect of curbing the influence of Islamists. In my opinion, however, the period of military rule was actually an “enabling phase” that catalyzed the growth of Islamic movements. This shift in the public discourse and mood — from moderation and liberalism toward Islamism — revealed itself fully in the results of this week’s elections.

The stunning success of the Brotherhood and Salafi parties at the polls suggests that Islamic values that had previously been confided to the private, personal realm in Egyptian society are now dominating debates in the formal political arena. In Islamic jurisprudence, there is the concept of a “phase of vulnerability,” during which Muslims were a minority in Mecca. This period was characterized by tolerance of other religious groups, as Muslims lacked the political authority and demographic weight to impose their views on society.  However, this framework changed dramatically during the “enabling phase,” after the Prophet Mohammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina, where Muslims represented the dominant religion. No longer constrained by their minority status, Muslims became increasingly assertive in reengineering their societies in conformity with Islamic moral and legal principles, even in liberal cosmopolitan cities like Cairo. 

In 2003, I spoke with Essam al-Erian, deputy head of the FJP, during my work at Cairo Times magazine, about a draft bill presented by the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc that made alcohol consumption a crime punishable by whipping, in accordance with Islamic Shari’a. At the time, al-Arian insisted that the Brotherhood “was not in a hurry to implement the Shari’a.” “Our primary goal is to construct the individual and Muslim society, and then the fruit will fall on its own,” He said. Looking at this week’s election results, it looks like the fruit is finally hitting the ground.

With the FJP poised to capture a plurality and possibly a majority of seats in parliament, the Brotherhood will undoubtedly reconsider its pre-revolutionary slogan, “participation not competition,” which reflect the restraint and pragmatism that become hallmarks of the group’s political strategy under Mubarak’s rule.  At the beginning of the revolution, the Brotherhood announced that they would preserve the same slogan and would not compete for more than 30% of the parliamentary seats. Additionally, the Freedom and Justice Party stated that it would not nominate candidates for the presidential election. However, in recent months, the Brotherhood’s position has shifted gradually, reflecting heightened political ambitions, with the FJP announcing that it would field candidates for 50% of the parliamentary seats, a 10% increase over the previously announced threshold. What led to this strategic shift?

The electoral success of the Islamic movement in Egypt can be partially attributed to regional dynamics. Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf monarchies would welcome an Islamist majority in Egypt’s next parliament, and there is evidence that these countries have provided significant funding to support Egyptian Salafi NGOs and political parties in recent months.  Statements by US officials pledging to work with Islamist parties represented in the next parliament may have emboldened the FJP to go public with its rising political ambitions. Meanwhile, the electoral victory of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Morocco may have whetted the Brotherhood’s appetite for power. On the same day that Morocco’s Justice and Development party won the elections, a Brotherhood spokesman issued a statement saying that the ruling military council "must task the party with a [parliamentary] majority to form the next government."

Judging by the results of the first round, Islamists are on their way to winning an absolute majority in the next parliament that would enable them to impose their religious ideology on the new political system by drafting the country’s new constitution – a task that was delegated to a constituent assembly selected by the People’s Assembly under the interim constitution issued in March. If Islamists gain control of parliament, it would alter the balance of power for the remainder of the transitional phase scheduled to end with a presidential election by the end of June 2012.

Ironically, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) may view the Brotherhood’s political victory as a solution to its current legitimacy crisis, rather than a threat to its power. So far, the SCAF has steadfastly refused   to task Mohamed ElBaradei or any other political figure associated with the revolution to form the national salvation government demanded by protesters.  But if the Brotherhood gains significant power in the new political system, it could represent a power-sharing compromise, striking a balance between the expectations of revolutionary forces and the interests of the military establishment and former regime.  The SCAF will be able to point to a democratically elected parliament as proof that it is advancing the transition, while still keeping power out of the hands of the revolutionaries themselves.

An Islamist majority in parliament is likely to inspire new alliances and coalitions between secular and liberal parties, which will need to cooperate in a united bloc if they want to have their voices heard. If the Islamist majority in parliament succeeds in imposing its vision on Egypt’s next constitution, the country could be headed for a theocratic system that contains some of the institutional trappings of democracy but not its core values.

Magdy Samaan is a freelance journalist and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute. Mr. Samaan has previously worked as a correspondent for the Egyptian independent newspapers Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry al-Youm as well as Al Jazeera, reporting on politics, religious minorities, and US-Egypt relations.

Photo Credit: AP

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