, by OMAR AFZAL
OMAR AFZAL critically analyses the sweeping victory of Islamists in Egypt’s run-off elections and its potential to upend the established order across the West Asia.
Islamists gained a decisive victory in Egypt’s elections as early results show. They are on track to win a dominant majority in Egypt’s first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. It is the most significant step yet in Ikhwan’s rise since the start of the Arab Spring.
The political party – Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 per cent of the vote. A big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Salafi candidates. The news media said early returns indicated that Salafi groups could take as much as a quarter of the vote, giving the two groups of Islamists combined control of nearly 65 per cent of the parliamentary seats.
The Islamists victory came at the expense of the liberal parties. Youth activists, who had set off the anti-Mubarak revolution, feared that they would be unable to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak’s repressive decades better organised and with an established following.
Poorly organised and divided, the liberal groups could not compete with the Islamists disciplined by decades as the sole opposition to Mr. Mubarak. “We were washed out,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, one of the most politically active groups.
Western analysts and political pundits are apprehensive that the new majority is likely to increase the difficulty of sustaining the United States’ close military and political partnership with post-Mubarak Egypt. Islamist political leaders have not missed any opportunity to criticise Washington’s policies toward the Muslims in general and towards Iraq, Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan and Israel.
While Ikhwan leaders have repeatedly assured publicly that they intend to preserve though perhaps renegotiate the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, the Salafi parties have been much less reassuring. Some have suggested putting the treaty to a referendum. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an Israeli official acknowledged concerns: “Obviously, it is hard to see in this result good news for Israel.”
The most crucial would be the role of the Egyptian military. How much sway the Islamists would be given in foreign affairs depends on how the ruling military rules the troika. The military has said it plans to maintain a monopoly over many aspects of foreign affairs.
Brotherhood leaders often repeated that they believe citizenship is an equal right of all Egyptians regardless of sect or religion, even chanting at campaign rallies that Copts are also “sons of Egypt.” However, some members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority – about 10 per cent of the population – joked that they would prepare to leave the country.
Salafis have also more often declared that Christians should not fear Islamic law because it requires the protection of religious minorities. However, many Christians feel it assigns them second-class status.
Previously protected by Mr. Mubarak’s patronage, many have dreaded the Islamists’ talk of protecting the Islamic character of Egypt. Most Copts voted for the liberal Egyptian bloc, which was vying for second place with the Salafis in some reports. It was an eclectic alliance against the Islamists, dominated by the Social Democrats, a left-leaning party with ties to the revolution’s leaders, and by the Free Egyptians, the business-friendly party founded and promoted by Naguib Sawiris, the Coptic Christian media-and-telecommunications tycoon.
The results indicated that some of the candidates and slates put forward by the former ruling party appeared to have won back their seats. It was unclear how large a bloc they might form, but they could prove sympathetic to the familiar mantra of stability-above-all that the ruling military is putting forward.
The voting took place in only a third of Egypt’s provinces. They included some of the nation’s most liberal precincts – like Cairo, Port Said and the Red Sea coast. The Islamist wave is likely to grow stronger as the voting moves into more conservative rural areas in the coming months.
The election results show the rising influence of Islamists across a region where they were once outlawed and oppressed by autocrats aligned with the West.
Results will not be final until January 2012, after two more rounds of voting. And the ultimate scope of the new Parliament’s power remains unclear because Egypt has remained under military rule since Mr. Mubarak resigned as president in February. But Parliament is expected to play a role in drafting a new Constitution with the ruling military council, although the council has given contradictory indications about how much parliamentary input it will allow.
The emergence of a strong Islamist bloc in Parliament is already quickening a showdown with the military. Brotherhood leaders on Nov 30 announced that they expected the Islamist parliamentary majority to name a prime minister to replace the civilian government now serving the military. In response, a senior official of the military-led government insisted that the ruling generals would retain that prerogative.
The unexpected rise of a strong ultraconservative Islamist faction to the right of the Brotherhood is likely to shift Egypt’s cultural and political centre of gravity to the right as well. Leaders of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will likely feel obliged to compete with the ultraconservatives for Islamist voters, and at the same time will not feel the same need to compromise with liberals to form a government.
“It means that, if the Brotherhood chooses, Parliament can be an Islamists affair – a debate between liberal Islamists, moderate Islamists and conservative Islamists, and that is it,” Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-born researcher at the Century Foundation in Cairo, said this week.
The ultraconservative Salafi parties, meanwhile, will be able to use their electoral clout to make their own demands for influence on appointments in the new government. Mr. Hanna added: “I don’t mind saying this is not a great thing. It is not a joyous day on my end.”
Islamists have formed governments in Tunisia and Morocco. They are positioned for a major role in post-Qaddafi Libya as well. But it is the victory in Egypt – the largest and once the most influential Arab state, an American ally considered a linchpin of regional stability – that has the potential to upend the established order across the Middle East.