Theocratic Dominance of the New Egypt may be Exaggerated

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.

Posted in Egypt | 30 Responses | Print |

30 Responses

  1. Egypt’s ElBaradei: Liberals “decimated” in vote.

    How many folks, Juan included, ridiculed Khamenei for his public statement that Iran’s Islamic revolution was now being echoed in places like Egypt? At least ElBaradei has the courage to state the truth.

    • What I said was that the revolution was not made primarily by religious forces, even if they might later be beneficiaries of it at the polls. What Khamenei said was that the revolution of last February itself was an echo of 1979, which was simply not true– it was spearheaded by the New Left and workers and the Brotherhood was a junior partner.

      Moreover, Egypt’s parliamentary system is not like Iran’s mullahcracy even if Muslim religious forces dominate parliament.

      Left-liberal forces got about a third of party-based seats in this first round, which is not in fact the definition of ‘decimated.’

      • Cairo and Alexandria were the most liberal electorates, the most urban.
        I expect the Salafis will get 40% in the rural villages.
        Egypt is 90% muslim.
        Its hardly surprising that when muslims are DEMOCRATICALLY empowered to vote, they vote for more Islam, not less, and never for missionary democracy, COIN, the Bush Doctrine and the Freedom Agenda.

        • the Bush Doctrine is democracy. when citizens are in charge of their own governance, they will have to point the finger at the government they chose, not the countries that support their oppressor.

    • “Egypt’s ElBaradei: Liberals “decimated” in vote.”

      The precise, primary definition of “decimate” is to reduce by, or to take, ten percent, which is hardly the case in the Egyptian elections.

    • I read Baredei’s comments as an effort to get those “non-partisan” liberal youth to get their act together and actually organize for elections.

  2. This past week has been utterly filled with relatively subdued, but still increasingly cheap, shots passed back and forth between the FJP and the electoral-politics-engaged secular/left. Meanwhile, the FJP is openly supporting some salafiyeen against felool/independents; not so much secularists. I’m not into the Brotherhood=boogeymen version of reality by any stretch, but the degree to which organizationally they view their own political potential as being bound to their association with religiosity (see also: recent campaign tactics and rhetoric on the “street” level especially) should not be underestimated when trying to figure out just who they might be willing to woo as allies. Hint: it’s not going to be the party of Mr.-I-want-my-scotch on matters of personal and family law.

  3. Told you not to underestimate the Salafis’ influence didn’t I?

    And if their influence is larger in rural areas, as I recall you have mentioned, then maybe you shouldn’t bet too hard on their votes decreasing in the coming rounds.

    And please, while lefitists might have stimulated it, all colors of egyptians joined in under the common goal of ousting Mubarak. It does not give them a “right” to shape the regime alone afterwards, even if their efforts in the revolution no doubt deserve gratitude.

    • Hat if their elected in free and fair elections? Will we be saying they “seized power” as the MSM characterizes the Hamas victory in gaza?

  4. I think it is a mistake to downplay these results. I believe that the majority for the Islamist parties is a vote for “authenticity”. What I mean by this is that this is a reaction to the encroachment of secular, Western, materialist values on the Arab/Muslim Middle East that has been ongoing since the middle of the 19th century, and which accelerated after the First World War with the creation of the modern Arab national entities. The popular movements that swept the Middle East after the Second World War, including Ba’athism and Nasserite Pan-Arabism (I am not exactly sure what the difference between them was) were all based on various amalgamations of secularist Fascist and Marxist ideologlies. While it is true that these movements all failed to give these countries the economic development they all wanted, I believe that this Islamist surge is NOT based simply on a search for yet another system that can run their countries more efficiently. It reflects a general disillusionment with the secular, materialist Western values that were pushed on these societies. Traditional Islam stands opposed to much of these values. Whereas many perceive the Western secular values as promoting homosexuality, the breakup of the family, pornography in the media, feminism and disrespect for elders, Islam (like traditional Judaism and Christianity) strongly opposes these.
    I believe this move to traditionalist Islam reflects a long-term trend so even if, in Turkey for example, the ruling Islamic party should be voted out and they agree to give up power, those who take their place will not be able to roll back many of the pro-Islamic reforms. I think the same will be true in Egypt. Even if Prof. Cole is right and the secularlists will end up with more power than people think at the moment after these first election results came through, they will not be able to ignor the large-scale popular sentiments pointing towards more Islamization and a move away from Western values.

    • I didn’t downplay results. I pointed out that this was not a scientific sample such that it can automatically be projected forward, and I pointed out that the party-based results are being wrongly calculated in some press reports.

      The Salafis are not traditionalists and virtually no Egyptian Muslims held their views in the past. They are radical fundamentalists and part of a distinctly modern stream that began in the 18th century. Most Egyptians in the medieval period were Sufis.

      • You are quite right that many of the modern Islamic movements are not in line with truly traditional observance of Islam by the mainline Egyptian population over the generations, but that is not the point. The MB and Salafist present themselves as being “authentic” and representing the true values of Islam. Many traditionalist Egyptian Muslims (and Muslims of other Muslim countries) are not that well educated in the tenets of their religion and a slick PR man can come along and claim he is the “real deal” and the more moderate elements have overly compromised their faith. I still maintain that the main concern of the voters who sent for MB and the Salafists are voting FOR Islamic values (however that may be defined) and AGAINST what they believe are the encroachments of alien philosophies and values that have challenged their traditional beliefs.

  5. Dr. Cole,

    The question is can you expect a true revolution from these people elected? Will these people change the power structures in society? Will they care about outrageous levels of female circumcision in the country? Allow more union right?

    Won’t a revolution without a social revolution just recycle the people in places of power without changing the structures? Do you truly believe these people will make things better for women, students and workers of Egypt?

    If not, was a secular dictatorship any worse?

    • If the problem was big time corruption on the part of Mubarak cronies, then this is certainly a big change, and whatever you think of the Salafis, they are very anti-corruption.

  6. Some of the most liberal districts were represented in this first round, including Cairo. The fact that the Brotherhood did so well is an indicator that they will do just as well if not better in other governates that are more conservative and represent the countryside. Yes it may be difficult for the Brotherhood and the Salafis to united as a coalition nevertheless they will coalesce around sharia as the basis of law in Egypt and that is what’s most important. Also a few months ago the Brotherhood fought, and won, to allow parties to run individuals in the one third allocated to independents.

    • It is tricky to define “liberal” districts. In Luxur in Upper Egypt, the Egyptian Bloc got 40%. Some rural district have a high Coptic population.

      You may be right in the end, but let us be a little more cautious in making flat pronouncements before the fact.

      • Prof. Cole:

        Your advise is taken even though my “pronouncements” reflect my optimism. Also keep in mind that the Brotherhood has decided not to contest all 498 seats of the lower house so that they will achieve a strong showing but not a majority. However, this indicates that they could have gotten more seats if they ran party lists and candidates for all of them.

  7. So we’re worried about the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis?Isn’t the real concern still what role SCAF is playing in all of this and what its response will be to the elections results? My worry is not who wins these elections but whether or not SCAF will honor the will of the Egyptian people. I have to say, I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in this regard.

    • I’ve seen the phrase “will of the people” several times in this discussion. I don’t think the results of this election can be said to represent the will of the people when so many Egyptians are so new to political thought, indeed, independent thinking. It will take a generation of sustained effort to bring people who have always submitted to the will of the powerful to the point where they can make independent and thoughtful decisions. Have witnessed an illiterate woman who brought a list of whom she wanted to vote for hand over the list to an MB “helper” inside the polling station who filled her ballot out for her. Even if she could recognise the pictorial symbols, she has never held a pencil or pen in her hand in her life so was unable to make the required check mark. She is not an unusual case.

      • more…that said, I agree that enough people have awakened to the fact that they do have a voice that the majority will no longer be silent. As for the Iran comparison, Iranians supported Khomeini as the alternative to the Shah. It’s not the same either/or situation in Egypt.

  8. I highly support Prof. Cole’s optimism. Tahrir Square should be interpreted as the Egyptian people waking up to the right for each person to determine her own destiny. Meaning that it will be very difficult for any dictator to again emerge. And if the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salifis win a majority and move too far in the direction of an Egyptian Iran, don’t you believe the people will again descend on Tahrir Square and in time get that government to change. And why not look at the Turkey experience. My limited awareness of the public opinion there was that a far more pessimistic picture was predicted before the current government first won governing power. And what they did was a lot less than expected. Revel in the Egyptians new found personal desire for freedom, and give them time to fully evolve.

    • Turkey used to have a relatively free media. Now there’s barely anything left. What you have to fear is not ISLAM but the use of Islam to pursue fascistic policies. Turkey’s become like Russia except it produces wealth rather than digging it up. People are satisfied with the economy but human rights have barely gotten better. There is more journalists in prison per capita in Turkey than anywhere else.

      Ignorant people are easy to fool. The average education in Turkey is still 5 years. I suspect it’s worse in Egypt.

      Egyptian revolution is a massive failure in the making for human rights and democracy.

      • You claim Turkey had a relatively free media, but if you had the “wrong” ideas the judges (backed by the Army) would ban you from running for office. Is that a free country to you? Generally, the most effective oppressive organization in non-Communist societies is the Army. You imply that Erdogan is a fascist; that’s a serious charge when we consider that Berluscogni actually had monopoly control of the private and public media and had fascist allies, yet he still had to give up power due to his massive corruption, unpopularity and failure. You and the Western corporate media seem to spend a hundred times more effort damning any Moslem who won’t be our Uncle Tom than you do a real criminal in the heart of Europe who helped create an economic catastrophe.

        • Super390,

          I am a socialist. My father’s friends were tortured and made deaf, blind by the military regimes in my country. Who was that army supported by? (Answer: Cold War US)

          If you spoke my language and saw what is happening in Turkey however, you would see how ALL NEWSPAPERS shy away from criticism today. In that past we could not criticize the MILITARY POLICIES. Today we cannot criticize ANY POLICIES of the government.

          I would never defend the army. However, things are getting worse, not better. So the Turkish model is unfortunately a joke. Until we can get true separation of power in my country, nothing can get better. Free judiciary! Free media!

  9. The trade unions, the women, the students, the Copts, and the lefties will need to keep fighting both the military and the Muslim hardliners for some time. The military and the Salafists have already shown that they are a danger to whoever is not with their program. And if a government is elected that tolerates the abuse of women or any minority, it should be implaccably opposed. Democracy may be the best form of government, but “the people” can be as demented as any tyrant.

  10. Dear Professor Cole

    Thank you so much for this reasoned, rational and factual analysis of the results of the first stage of the Egyptian Elections. It is this kind of objective insight that makes me read your column.

    I have to compare it with the views of the seriously deranged Caroline Glick in Jerusalem Post.

    link to

    I read the womans comments every now and again to see what the world might looklike from the Loony Right.

    The propaganda is argued in a defective manner, and reaches a conclusion that flies in the face of reality. Given the amount of weapons and budget support supplied by the US, how anyone can complain that the US is no longer Israels ally is beyond me.

    The usual warnings of prospective pogroms are trotted out.

    “With vote tallies in for Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections in it is abundantly clear that Egypt is on the fast track to becoming a totalitarian Islamic state. The first round of voting took place in Egypt’s most liberal, cosmopolitan cities. And still the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists received more than 60 percent of the vote. Run-off elections for 52 seats will by all estimates increase their representation.

    And then in the months to come, Egyptian voters in the far more Islamist Nile Delta and Sinai will undoubtedly provide the forces of jihadist Islam with an even greater margin of victory.”


    “So too, there is little qualitative difference between blaming Israel for its isolation in the face of the Islamist takeover of the Arab world, and blaming the Jews for the rise of anti-Semites to power in places like Russia, Germany and Norway.

    In truth, from Israel’s perspective, it really doesn’t make a difference whether these statements and the intellectual climate they represent stem from ideological myopia or from hatred of Jews.

    The end result is the same in either case: Under President Obama, the US government has become hostile to Israel’s national rights and strategic imperatives. Under Obama, the US is no longer Israel’s ally.”

    Joe Nye talks about the use of Soft Power to increase a states influence. The sort of nonsense spouted in the article above actually strengthens the arguments of Clinton and Panetta, and undermines the case for any support for Israeli policies or actions.

    It is time for the adults to enter the playground and take the children’s toys away before someone gets hurt.

    • Taken by itself, and with an eye that is not only uncritical but already sympathetic (and who cannot be sympathetic to Israel as a concept), her argument becomes quite effective, practically speaking.

      The essence of propaganda is propagation of an idea, and the underlying idea/concept here is one I get weary of hearing. But there is no weariness in keeping up this basic message. And it is its relentless that is most dangerous, when even highly cogent messages to the contrary are relatively inconsistent and uncoordinated.

  11. The old-school Ikhwan and the Salafists are discredited, increasingly splintered, and even distrusted amongst Muslims thoroughly sick of upfront religious rhetoricians whose basic skill is to imply that going against them is going against God. The desire for a Turkish-style regime cannot be underestimated. From what I have seen, increasingly Muslims want leaders that actually behave as if they are God-fearing – over everyday issues and basic morality. There has been a spate of those who have been playing politics in the manner they have been hitherto playing sectarianism – to get a following, refute any opposition, and fill the collection boxes and their pockets.
    They have been exploiting grievances with their militant push-button solutions that inevitably fail in the same manner that the hard left has done in the past. Maybe they have had their day. I don’t think the Egyptians are really interested in who has the longest beard.

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