The official results of the November 28 vote in Egypt have now been announced. Observers are jumping to a lot of conclusions. It seems clear that Muslim religious parties have done better than expected, but the exact proportions are still unclear.
Egyptians head to the polls again today to settle run-off contests for seats held by independents, which are quite numerous, so that we still don’t really know which individuals won.
A third of seats on the parliament will be held by independents not running on a party ticket.
The party returns being reported are for a third of the provinces, and affect two thirds of the seats. That is, only about 22% of the over-all seats in the lower house were allocated by party in this, first round. The third of districts that just voted are not necessarily representative of the country, so that the other two rounds may not look exactly like the first.
In this round, nearly 37 percent of party-based seats went to leftist and liberal parties and to one liberal-Muslim party. About 36 percent went to the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither of these results is a big surprise.
The source of astonishment is that the al-Nur Party of the Salafi movement received 24 percent. Salafis favor Saudi-style Islam, and want to ban liquor, impose morality, and maybe even forbid women from driving. The Salafis (like US evangelicals in the 1950s) had been political quietists, and have only recently organized for parliamentary politics. It is a shock to most Egypt-watchers, no matter how intimate they were with the country and its politics, that the Salafis did that well. But remember that al-Nur won 24% of the party-based seats (i.e. 2/3s of the total), so they could be projected to gain only about 16 percent of the full parliament, assuming that they do as well in the second two rounds (which cannot be assumed).
It is not clear that individuals with Salafi leanings will do well in the vote for the independent seats, where, in fact, it has been argued that holdovers from the Mubarak regime might have an unfair advantage because of their name recognition. Apparently about half of the run-off elections for the 52 still-contested independent seats in this round will pit pro-Muslim Brotherhood independents against pro-Salafi ones.
So putting the Muslim Brotherhood at 36 percent together with the Salafis at 24 percent and coming up with 60 percent as the proportion of the parliament held by Muslim fundamentalists could turn out to be an error. If they do as well in the second two rounds, they will have 60 percent of the 2/3s of seats contested by parties, which is actually 40 percent of the whole. It is too soon to know whether candidates sympathetic to the religious parties will do as well (i.e. 60%) when they run as independents. (I don’t deny that they could do so, I only say it is too soon to tell). Nor is it likely that the two will actually join forces.
The other wild card is that not everyone who stood for the Muslim Brotherhood party is a religious hardliner. At least this is what Amr el-Shobaki of the al-Ahram Center argues. He says we have to wait until the third round of voting is over and see who the new incumbents are before we can really know the new balance of power.
The left-liberal parties should not be discounted. The Egyptian Bloc (made up of two leftist parties and a Coptic liberal party) came in second in the blue collar district of Helwan. In Luxor in Upper Egypt, which is heavily dependent on tourism, the Egyptian Bloc got 40 percent of the vote. It is true that the New Left youth groups that were so central to actually making the revolution last February are not represented among the victors. But they do not conceive of themselves as parties, don’t want to be parties, and some told me that they had no idea how to canvass. It was predictable that they would do poorly in the elections. They will likely continue to have a voice, however, as activist groups, even if they are not legislators.
But, the Freedom and Justice Party is unlikely to ally with the Salafis, who would, therefore, be marginalized. The FJP is afraid of being tarred with the Salafi brush, such that middle class Egyptians might abandon the Brotherhood Party. The Freedom and Justice Party initially was going to contest elections in coalition with the liberal New Wafd Party, but in the end they ran on separate tickets. If the FJP/ New Wafd partnership is revived, and perhaps the Egyptian Bloc is added to it, the Brotherhood Party could end up forming the new government but with strong liberal and leftist partners. This outcome would be best for the country. It is only one possibility among others, admittedly, but it is a strong possibility.
So, the takeaways are this: The Salafis are unexpectedly strong, at 24 percent of the party-based seats and 16 percent of total parliamentary seats so far. The Muslim religious parties will be very important in the new parliament and may end up with a majority if they find independents to vote with them. But early indications are that the Brotherhood and the Salafis do not get along. If the Brotherhood forms a governing coalition with liberal and leftist parties, the result would be a green-red (moderate religious plus left-liberal) alliance.
My experience with Egyptian activists this past summer in Tahrir Square is that they are reluctant to say or do polarizing things, and that leftists seek common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood in hopes of outmaneuvering the military. They would not bad-mouth one another. The exception was the Salafis, who were therefore treated by the others like skunks at the party.
On the other hand, the good news is that these elections are from all accounts the freest and fairest in Egypt’s history. If they do produce a fundamentalist-dominated parliament, then at least it will have been the will of the people. Americans are quick to forget how democracy has worked in their own country historically. For instance, religious people here mobilized to forbid alcohol during Prohibition, even passing a constitutional amendment to that effect. It would not be strange if Egyptians behaved similarly. One limiting factor is that if the country becomes too oppressive, it will hurt the key tourist industry.
It is still the plan that the secular-leaning Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will appoint 80% of the constituent assembly that will draft the new constitution, and that it has offered secular guidelines for the organic law. It will be interesting to see if the left-liberal forces keep agitating so vigorously for the military to step down immediately, now that the alternative is likely a Muslim fundamentalist constitution. Ironically, the Brotherhood, which was more favorable to the military this past summer than the leftists, is already talking about sending the military back to the barracks.