The Inevitable Rise of Egypt's Islamists

So far, Egyptian politics center around debate among competing interpretations of Islamic politics, rather than a struggle between religious and secular parties

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A veiled woman casts her vote during the second day of the parliamentary run-off elections at a polling station in Cairo / Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's liberals have been apoplectic over the early results from the recent elections here. Everybody expected the Islamists to do well and for the liberals to be at a disadvantage. But nobody -- perhaps with the exception of the Salafis -- expected the outcome to be as lopsided as it has been so far. Exceeding all predictions, Islamists seem to be winning about two-thirds of the vote. Even more surprising, the radical and inexperienced Salafists are winning about a quarter of all votes, while the more staid and conservative Muslim Brotherhood is polling at about 40 percent.

The saga is unfolding against a political backdrop of alarmism. One can almost hear the shrill cries echoing in unison from Cairo bar-hoppers and Washington analysts: "The Islamists are coming!" In short order, they fear, the Islamists will ban alcohol, blow up the sphinx, force burqas on women, and declare war on Israel.

Before we all worry too much, however, and before fundamentalists in Egypt start to crack the champagne (in their case perhaps literally, with crowbars), it's worth taking a look at what's really happening with Egypt's Islamists.

Egypt is still not a democracy, so election results mean only a little; the key players in shaping the country remain the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the plutocrats. To a lesser degree, revolutionary youth, liberals, and former ruling party stakeholders will have some input. The new powers-that-be in Egypt and other Arab states who are trying to break the shackles of autocracy are likely to be more religious, socially conservative, and unfriendly to the rhetoric of the United States and Israel. That doesn't mean they'll be warmongers, or that they'll refuse to work with Washington, or even Jerusalem, on areas of common interest.

Islamism has been on the rise throughout the Arab and Islamic world for nearly a century and will probably set the political tone going forward. The immediate future will feature a debate among competing interpretations of Islamic politics, rather than a struggle between religious and secular parties.

One example of that intramural fight took place this week in Alexandria, in a parliamentary runoff election pitting a business-as-usual Muslim Brother against a fire-and-brimstone cleric from the Salafi call, Abdel Monem El-Shahat. During the campaign period, Shahat reminded the Egyptian public that its beloved literary laureate Naguib Mahfouz "incited prostitution and atheism" and reassured Egypt that he wouldn't kill all of its all-important tourist trade, just the part that depended on liquor and nudity (which part is that again?). His colleagues have called for the faces on Pharaonic monuments to be covered with wax. Shahat lost in this week's runoff to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, whose Freedom and Justice Party has taken pains to reassure the ruling military and nervous liberals.

The Noor Party has no track record and rises from an ultra-fundamentalist movement that in principle considers electoral politics sacrilegious. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, has been playing politics since 1928 and is well versed in the art of deal-making and compromise. It's possible to imagine a union between the two, but it's just as likely that they'll consider each other arch-rivals. The Brotherhood already has promised to seek a governing alliance with liberals rather than the Salafis. It's also unclear what policies the different Islamists will adopt. Brotherhood officials have openly planned for the prospect of running popular service ministries that would play to their organizational strengths and afford patronage opportunities: health, education, maybe transportation or finance. The Salafis, meanwhile, have exhibited a willingness to fuel culture wars with less pious Egyptians.

Presented by

Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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