How bad is the news out of Egypt? The question isn’t rhetorical: in its first free and fair elections ever, the majority voted for an Islamist party of one stripe or another, and one quarter for a hardcore, ultra-conservative one; but there are enough externalities that predicting what comes next requires more than just a look at the various percentages. The plurality-winner was the venerable Muslim Brotherhood, which secured a reported 40 percent. Next was an overtly Salafist party at 20 percent. Only then, at 15 percent, is a secular one. But it would be a huge mistake, for example, to lump the Brotherhood and the Salafists into a single bloc. And it might be a mistake to draw from the results a broader mandate for Islamist government. Plus, how much power these parties actually get depends on how the military leadership responds.
It seems clear that the Brotherhood ran on, and was elected on, a platform that had more to do with providing basic governmental functions. “The reality is that most Egyptians want guarantees that basic needs will be met,” reports Yasmine El Rashidi from Cairo.
They want to put their children through school, they want decent jobs, they want food each day, and they want affordable and reliable health care. The Muslim Brotherhood are, in many ways, the only organized, and as well the largest, faction who in the past have offered people what they seek; for years they have been offering social services to their communities where the government has failed, and in recent months, they are the only ones who have spoken the language of the street.
And the last thing the Brotherhood wants to discuss is imposing Sharia: “We represent a moderate and fair party,” one of the group’s leaders, Essam El-Erian, said immediately after last weekend’s big win was announced.
In addition to knowing that it was elected primarily on the basis of its credibility as a provider, the Brotherhood does not want ideology too much in the picture because it knows the parties to its right—which together received something like a quarter of the vote—very much do want to talk Islam and Sharia in a way that might sap support from and discredit the Brotherhood. The Salafis, largely Saudi-funded, were not expected to do quite so well, and they are going to demand changes of the religious kind that 80 years under secular dictators has taught the Brotherhood are likely to result in further repression. One analyst has analogized their success to that of the Tea Party: “Down the road, the Salafi competition could … drag the rest of the political spectrum rightwards.” Gulp. And also gulp-worthy is the meager 15 percent that the liberal party got. The liberal youth who drove the initial Tahrir Square revolution, according to onetime presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei, were “decimated” in the elections.
The elections are far from over. This round will determine about one third of the composition of the new parliament; the remaining two rounds are scheduled to end in January. And the presidential election is slated for June. The two wild cards here would be the military, still very much in charge and apparently very much resistant to giving up too much power, and … the economy? Noting the perfect storm—sluggish tourism, old businessmen caught up in Mubarak-era corruption scandals, new leaders unsure of how to cultivate good business—columnist Gideon Rachman warns, “The real danger is more subtle. It is that an economic crisis and an unstable international environment will undermine a new government’s initial moderation—and allow more radical elements within the Islamist movement to come to the fore.” That’s worth another gulp.
Islamist Bloc Wins 60% of Votes in Egypt Elections [Haaretz]
Egypt’s Vote Puts Emphasis on Split Over Religious Rule [NYT]
Choosing Egypt’s Future [NYRB]
Egypt Brotherhood Says Won’t Impose Islamic Values [Ynet]
Western Dreams and Egypt’s Reality [FT]