A theocracy on the Nile?
The triumph of the Islamist parties in Egypt's elections has raised fears of a religious takeover of the state. Austin Mackell reports from Cairo
With Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament now sitting, it is abundantly clear that elections were an important win for political Islam. Of the 27 million votes cast, more than 10 million went to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, and another 7.5 million to the hard line Salafist Al Noor ("The Light") Party. Together the two parties have a comfortable majority – if they vote as a block, (and assuming the presidential elections produce a similar result) the stage could be set for a general Islamisation of the Egyptian state.
There are good reasons, however, to believe that the Islamists’ victory in this particular battle will do them little good in the overall war for Egypt's soul.
Before discussing their future prospects, it is important to understand the reasons for the success of these parties. The Brotherhood's success, in particular, should come as no surprise. Founded in 1928, it is among Egypt's oldest political institutions, and with a membership in the hundreds of thousands and a strong national structure it was well positioned to take advantage of Egypt's unexpected democracy. That said, even they seemed to only get their banners and campaign posters up in large numbers in the days and weeks immediately preceding the elections.
More important than its campaigning strength was the Brotherhood’s long-standing involvement charitable work, involving the provision of low-price hospitals, job training programs and support for other local NGOs, as well as its strong participation in professional associations and syndicates. This work has left many Egyptians with a good impression of the Brotherhood as, on the whole, a devout and moral bunch, with genuine concern for their fellow citizens. There is also a hope that their religiosity will lead them to break with the corruption that has so long typified Egyptian politics. As one Freedom and Justice voter told me: “I have nothing to fear from a man who fears god.”
Still more important than this, however, is the issue of identity. In our discussions of the Middle East, there is a tendency to conflate Muslim identity, religiosity and social conservatism. This is understandable, but we mustn’t neglect where these things diverge, and where the emphasis is. With the Brotherhood, the emphasis is primarily on Islamic identity, secondly on faith, with social conservatism coming in a distant third.
A secular Egyptian friend of mine was out with a more conservative friend (it is common to see veiled and unveiled girls walking arm in arm down the Nile) who asked her what her preference was from among the parties. My friend named the secular Egyptian Block. Her friend looked at her surprised and asked "The Christians?"
As far as I know, the Islamists did not overtly label the seculars as “Christians” during the campaign. However, the fact that the Free Egyptian Party, one of the Egyptian Block's main members, was bankrolled by Christian business giant Naguib Sawiris, combined with a more locally-attuned sense of identity politics on the side of Brotherhood, has allowed the Freedom and Justice party to successfully market itself as a true Muslim party, for true Muslims.
The importance of Islam in this sense – as a cultural identity rather than a dogmatic belief – is generally underplayed in the Western press. This is not to say that the Brotherhood's politics isn't problematic from a humanist perspective, but simply to lump the Brotherhood into the category of Islamists and imagine them as a watered down version of the Taliban does not give a clear picture.
It is worth remembering, for example, that neither the Freedom and Justice party (which has a Coptic Christian as its vice president), nor the Muslim Brotherhood that spawned it, have called for clerics to be handed formal political power, and it seems unlikely they would do so. They are, essentially, a party of compromise. What they offered the Egyptian electorate was a party that could operate in the modern world, but which could do so without losing a distinctly Muslim identity. Indeed it is possible that they will, on many issues, align with the secular parties rather than the more hardline Islamists of the Salafist Al-Noor party. In any case, at this stage, it still seems likely that an attempt will be made to bring all groups together into a government of national unity, particularly until the transition to democracy – including the creation of a new constitution and the election of a new president – is complete.
The Salafist movement represents a more overtly backwards looking strain of Islamic thought that is guided by the principle of adhering to the example of the prophet, his companions, and the generations of Muslims immediately after them. This movement, with substantial help from oil-rich Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, has for decades been building a network of mosques and community organisations similar to those operated by the Brotherhood. However, while the threat they pose to the liberties of Egyptians is still unknown, we are a long way from the creation of a theocracy along the Nile.
A ranking Salafi leader, for example, recently made a speech in which he said his perception was that people wanted, by and large, a country that was not totally religious and not totally “unrelated to religion”. The fact that there are voices like his even within the Islamic hardliners – he went on to say they would not “make” anyone do anything Islamic and that preachers would not have political power – suggests a capacity for compromise here as well. Both the Salafists and the Brotherhood state publicly, and seem to honestly believe, that their path is to Islamise the government by way of Islamising the population, rather than the other way round. As many observers have noted, their strategies for this are conceived in terms of generations, rather than years or election cycles.
This strategy, however, while it may have worked during the political and social stasis of dictatorship, may find itself out-maneuvered in the fast moving world of parliamentary democracy. In opposition to Hosni Mubarak’s blatantly venal regime, they could be all things to all people, pulling in membership with a wide variety of social, economic and political views and interests. But if they hope to maintain support in the new Egypt, they will have to come up with detailed answers to the country’s problems.
While the election was fought largely on issues of identity rather than political substance, the headscarf and alcohol are not the most pressing issues on the minds of Egyptians, religious or otherwise. What truly concerns them at the moment are the issues of poverty, corruption, the lack of decent public services and the sense that foreign policy – from Egypt's hostility to Iran under Mubarak to its ongoing role in enforcing the siege of Gaza – is set in accordance with dictates from United States rather than Egypt's national interest. That these issues were barely raised during the campaign is a sign of the disconnect between formal politics and peoples real concerns – the concerns that have driven millions of Egyptians into the streets again and again over the last year. Down in Tahrir you would see traditionally dressed sheiks chanting along with unveiled women for “bread, freedom and social justice”.
One reason for this disconnect is the lack of real ideas coming out of Egypt's political class, who are as vacuous as any other, but who have less experience in pretending otherwise. A more substantial reason, however, is the presence of the military and other establishment forces, still sitting atop the political scene in Egypt, dominating the discussion and suffocating the kind of thorough debates that are necessary.
What this means, in the short term at least, is that the more interesting compromise is not that struck between religious values and personal freedom, but the compromise made between the Brotherhood and the military over political power. Many secular Egyptians, for example, have expressed grave doubts about recent statements by the Brotherhood’s leadership about holding the military to account for attacking protesters, and even demanding civilian oversight of the massive and secretive military budget. Pointing to recent statements to the contrary, and the Brotherhood's general reputation for speaking out both sides of its mouth, they argue that in reality the leadership will simply take whatever seems to be the path of least resistance on these issues – and in doing so expose a fundamental lack of principle and conviction that has until now been masked by their lofty religious rhetoric.