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.

The Brotherhood, if anything, has mirrored the rhetoric of Egypt's military rulers, who reflexively blame dissent on nefarious "hidden hands." In a statement this week that sounded almost plagiarized from the propaganda of the military junta, the Muslim Brotherhood decried the "hysteria" over their electoral success, calling it a "treacherous" and "heinous plot against the stability and security of Egypt."

It's too early in the game to predict the alliances and policy agendas that will flow from the high-performing Islamist parties. Moreover, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still holds all the cards. It alone appoints the government. The next parliament's job will be to help draft the next constitution, nothing more. As things currently stand, the elected parliament will select about 20 percent of the drafters of the next constitution. The military will appoint the rest. For the time being, the elected parliament will yield scant power, and the same would have been true had secular liberals won in a landslide.

The first-round election results are also creating a sort of moment of truth for secular liberal nationalists. The Egyptian Bloc, which included the two most popular and dynamic liberal parties, the Social Democrats and the Free Egyptians, bankrolled by Christian magnate Naguib Sawiris, won about 14 percent of the vote. The secular but hardly liberal Wafd Party, which thrived as a corrupt, sanctioned opposition party under Mubarak, won about another 10 percent. So, at a stretch, a quarter of the voters in round one went for secular parties -- and this in Cairo, Alexandria, and the Red Sea, all the most liberal urban districts in the country. Subsequent rounds will take place in areas that are more rural and religious demographically.

Secular liberals have made clear in the past that they're just as suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood as they are of the military, perhaps even more so. Followers of Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei were willing to accept new constitutional principles, issued undemocratically by military fiat, in advance of elections, so long as those principles safeguarded minority rights and rule of law -- in effect, liberal ends through illiberal means. That mistrust has broken out into the open now.

"We're all trapped between the Islamists and the army," said Hala Mostafa, an activist and spokeswoman for the Social Democratic Party. She fears that Islamists will take away her social freedom and her rights as a woman, while the military has already eroded her civil liberties and legal rights. "Even I think the Islamists are a bigger threat than the army. Nobody likes the SCAF, but I we have to choose between Islamist rule and the SCAF, I would choose military rule."

Perhaps the heat of the moment factored into Mostafa's glum assessment, but it suggests a shallow commitment to liberal ideas like representative democracy. Certainly, leading members of the Social Democratic Party have philosophically accepted the Islamists predominant role, and feel confident about their long-term chances. But they'll have to contend with a shrinking liberal constituency that values short-term security for the liberal lifestyle over long-term guarantees of liberal political principles. And perhaps that's a best-case scenario for Egypt's military rulers, who historically have goaded the elite opposition (and patrons in Washington) into silence by threatening that the only alternative to military dictatorship is Islamic rule.

Egypt is the Arab world's political center of gravity, and the time will come when it will experiment will authentic representative politics. As these election results indicate, those politics will be imbued with Islamic values and dominated by self-professed Islamist movements. Fear and expedient coalitions can forestall the rise of the Islamists but they can't put it off forever.