Four reasons why Egypt’s liberals should not fear an Islamist victory

As the results of the first round of Egypt’s first free and fair parliamentary elections are announced, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was by far the most successful securing almost 40% of the vote. This coupled with Salafist parties gaining about 20% of the vote means that Islamists are likely to dominate the upcoming parliament. Indeed, Islamists look to have gained 120 of 168 seats in the first round dwarfing the results of the strongest liberal grouping, the Egyptian Bloc.

Turnout, at around 70%, demonstrates the vast support that Islamists enjoy in Egypt.

Following these results, many liberals (a term which has become so inflated in Egypt it now covers practically any group that is non-Islamist) have expressed anxiety and over the prospect of an Islamist dominated parliament. Here are four reasons why they shouldn’t:

1. The Best Team Won
Democracy is about who is the most popular. However, popularity is often less about the intrinsic merits of political platforms and more about who is the most organised and best connects with voters. The MB and the FJP vastly outperformed its liberal opponents in both these regards. Its message resonated with the Egyptian masses, it had more electoral banners, provided better information, and had a higher presence in the streets both before and during the elections.

Its victory should not be feared in the way that say a military coup by the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) would be but congratulated, admired and learnt from. It was a fair, professional, and democratic victory. The best team won.

The scale and manner of the defeat should provoke Egypt’s liberals into rethinking their strategy and ideas and force them to engage more with ordinary Egyptians. This will be a positive thing in the long run.

2. It’s Not an Easy Time to Govern Egypt
Though the FJP will hold the most seats in parliament, it faces an uphill task in governing Egypt. The MB’s time-honoured slogan of ‘Islam is the solution’ will truly be put to the test. With the devastating economic problems that Egypt is suffering from, it will be nearly impossible for the government to make the vast improvements to public services that poorer Egyptians need so badly and many expect from the next parliament.

Curing Egypt of the systematic corruption inherent in its economic and political policies, paying off its mounting debts, and revitalising the struggling tourism sector are all huge tasks that will take years.

By the time the Egyptian economy does begin to pick up again it will be time for the next elections with the MB having had to make difficult, and often unpopular, policy choices. Islam alone cannot provide a solution to Egypt’s huge social problems and as the MB led parliament encounters difficulties so will its popularity. This will, if they organise effectively in-between terms, give Egyptian liberals a good chance at making significant gains in the next parliamentary elections.

3. An Elected Parliament Will Provide an Alternative to SCAF
As seen in Tahrir Square over the past two weeks, the main concern for many liberal activists is opposing military rule and calling for a transition to civilian rule and democracy. An elected parliament is a significant step towards this even if liberal parties only have a relatively small number of seats.

The next parliament immediately provides an alternative source of legitimacy to the SCAF. This legitimacy, if used to pressure SCAF into withdrawing from politics, will be the best chance Egypt has of securing genuine democracy in the long term.

The large MB presence in parliament means that liberals will have a strong ally in any disputes with the military. The MB may have stayed out last week’s protests (in preparation for elections) but it would not do so if, for example, SCAF tried to undermine parliament.

Thus liberals, if they have a genuine commitment to democracy, should welcome the new parliament regardless of its internal make-up as a means to secure Egypt’s democratic future.

4. Egypt is not Iran
The points raised previously assume that there will be free and fair elections for the next parliament and that the MB itself has a commitment to democracy.

Since the preliminary results and the scale of the Islamist victory were revealed, many commentators have seen fit to draw analogies with Iran and once again highlight the danger of Islamists hijacking the revolution.

This fear is largely unfounded. Firstly, times are different. Islamism in the late 1970s was very different to the Islamism of the 21st century. Decades of being persecuted and excluded from politics has taught Islamic movements the importance of inclusive democracy and as we can see in Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, there is a global trend towards the democratisation of Islamist movements. The times when fears of an Islamist electoral victory constituting ‘one person, one vote, one time’ are behind us.

The MB has shown itself to be politically pragmatic. It has played by the rules of the game and resisted from imposing its will, consistently negotiating with both other parties and the SCAF.

The MB is also very aware of the need for image management, especially given the resources and investment that Egypt will need to accept from the West to rebuild its struggling economy. As such, there will be no forced wearing of the hijab or imposition of medieval punishments that were seen in Iran. Egypt is another case entirely from the Islamic Republic.

Even if the MB (or more likely, the sizable Salafist minority in parliament) wanted to pursue such an agenda, it is unlikely that they would be able to. The parliament will be relatively weak and have little scope to introduce radical policy changes with most powers retained in the hands of the SCAF, at least until the forthcoming presidential election. This coupled with a large number liberal activists ready to risk their lives to protest against any infringement of their civil liberties makes the chances that Egypt will follow a similar revolutionary path to Iran extremely unlikely.

Overall
In sum, Egyptian liberals should embrace the results of democracy rather than lament the electoral failings of liberal parties. If they set themselves a well thought out long-term strategy, organise effectively and connect with ordinary Egyptians, they will be well placed to capitalise on the inevitable difficulties that this parliament will face.

Though there will be inevitable struggles over legislation and the constitution, overall an elected parliament, even if dominated by Islamists, is a good thing for Egypt and potentially even a good thing for Egypt’s liberal parties.

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