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.

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.


When there’s blood on the streets … buy stun-guns.

Walking from the heart of Islamic Cairo, which contains some of the holiest sights in Islam, towards Downtown has always been a noisy affair. The perpetual Cairene traffic jam provides a backdrop of constant car horns and frequent outbursts of road rage, the scene only interrupted by the occasional call to prayer.

Recently, another sound has begun to dominate all others. As if walking into a nest of crickets, as Downtown approaches the air soon becomes full of the startlingly loud buzzing of Cairo’s latest must-have product. The streets are lined with blue flashes as salesmen attempt to catch the attention of passers-by. Beside the usual impromptu stalls selling everything from kitsch children’s toys to imitation designer wallets, stun-guns have pride of place.

A short video can be found here:

Easily found throughout Cairo, all the stun-guns I saw were Chinese made and most of them by a company called Kelin. The most popular are the mobile-phone-size 916 type and the longer baton-esque 801 type, both retailing for between 100 – 200 Egyptian pounds (approximately between 10-20 GBP) making them affordable to most Egyptians.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the revolution salesmen seeking to sell such dangerous products would only have done so underground and at considerable risk to themselves. They now do so openly and in broad daylight with police officers round the corner, unable or unwilling to prevent such activity. Not only do policemen not intervene but some of them are actively involved. One seller, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that he has sold 60-70 stun-guns through a policeman friend of his, for a tidy commission of course.

The emergence of stun-guns is not only due to the ability of salesmen to operate –but also the ever-increasing demand. As this Gallup poll shows, in post-revolutionary Cairo many people feel less safe and they are turning to these weapons to defend themselves (and, inevitably, for more sinister reasons). At the same time as launching a multi-million pound campaign to convince potential tourists that the country is back to normal (see the advertisements on London’s tube), Egypt’s government is failing to convince its own people. One seller, Mohsin, told me:

“sadly after the revolution there are a lot of ‘Baltagia and ‘Haraamia (thugs and thieves) and these [stun-guns] are the best way to stop them.”

Business is booming and our conversation was regularly interrupted by new customers. Mohsin said he’s making much more money than he did from the shirts and mobile phone cases he used to sell before the fall of Mubarak. The customers I saw were from all stratas of Egyptian society: both young and old, rich and poor, male and female. One man bought 5, telling me that he wanted one for all his family.

Mohsin attempted to assure me that the devices are legal and have even been recommended by the police for self-defence. Ever the salesman he even said that if the police do stop me I should give them his number and he would ‘sort everything out’. A policeman I spoke to a few hundred yards away laughed at the suggestion of stun-guns being legal but when challenged said that they didn’t intervene because the ones being sold are ‘imitations that just give off sounds’. This claim was soon disproved when a salesman in his early teens I was speaking too accidently shocked himself as he was packing up his products. His wincing and shaking of his hand was met with his mother shouting ‘that’s because you’re stupid’ (I resisted the urge to suggest it was because she was making her son sell dangerous weapons).

The implications of this perceived decline in public order are potentially huge. Many are convinced that it is a mo’aamara (conspiracy or plot) by the ruling Supreme council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to make people yearn for the return of a strong (i.e military) leader to restore order. Indeed, I’ve heard this view from many a cab driver who expresses (perhaps imagined) nostalgia for a time-gone-by when adequate traffic policing limited congestion on Cairo’s roads. Others see it as a proof that the SCAF is unable to run the country and further cause for the continuation of the revolution until power is transferred to democratic civilian rule.

Either way, with Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 10 days, the perception that the revolution and subsequent SCAF policies have made Egypt less safe could prove vital in determining the country’s future. As could an increasingly fearful and armed and populace.

This blog post was republished by Think Africa Press at

Why the SCAF announcement is not good for Egypt

On Saturday Sami Anan, chief of staff of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), released a document signalling a much awaited change in several key policies. The day before, Friday 30th September, protestors had flocked to Tahrir Square to protest against the ongoing military rule in Egypt and demand a transition to civilian rule. At the same time, political parties had threatened to boycott the upcoming legislative elections were there not changes to the electoral law, with the Muslim Brotherhood even threatening ‘a revolution’ on Sunday had its demands not been met. The SCAF announcement, coming a day later, seemed to be a direct result of such pressure.

News reports have tended to see Saturday’s statement by the SCAF as the result of pressure from mass protests and political parties thus implying some concession by the military leaders to democracy and popular will. The BBC stated that:

“Egypt’s ruling military council has decided to amend an article of an election law, state media report, following demands from protesters.”

The Egyptian Gazette goes further in describing the announcement as the SCAF “caving in” to popular pressure.

Initially, there seems to be reason to praise the SCAF’s announcement. It purports to set out a timetable to the handover power to a civilian government, promise the end of military trials for civilians and the emergency law and amend the controversial electoral law.  However, closer analysis of the document makes for a less optimistic reading.

Perhaps the issue that resonates most strongly with the public is the military trials of civilians. Since the revolution, more people have been tried under military law than under the entire 30 years of Mubarak’s reign. On Friday nearly every protestor and wall was covered with stickers saying الثوار مش بلطجيه – ليه نتحاكم عسكرية؟ (Revolutionaries are not thugs – why are we trying them militarily?) or, more simply, أنا ضد المحاكمات العسكرية للمدنيين (I’m against the military trials of civilians). The SCAF document only promises to ‘study’ or ‘look into’ ending military trials for civilians. Anyone who has lived in Egypt will tell you that promising to ‘look into something’ effectively means nothing is going to happen. On top of that, even this vaguest of commitments comes with an immediate caveat: the SCAF will study ending military trials for civilians إلا في الجرائم التي ينص عليها قانون القضاء العسكري (with the exception of crimes committed under the military code of justice). However, Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef points out that this military code includes penal code crimes and covers almost all crimes. In adding this caveat we see that the SCAF doesn’t understand, or is choosing to disregard, the issue at stake. The delineation should not be the type of crime committed but the status of the person committing the crime; military trials should be reserved for military personal – not civilians.

The second ‘concession’ the SCAF made was to set out a clear timetable for transferring power to civilian rule. The problem is that its not clear and barely a timetable. The schedule given by the SCAF is complicated and, crucially, non-binding. Deciphering the announcement reveals that elections for the Lower House (Peoples’ Assembly) are set to begin on 28th November 2011 and last until mid January 2012. Once results have been announced, this house will convene and on the 26th March, the upper house (Shura Council) will sit. Then, by early April, the two houses will come together to draw up a new constitution. This constitution will be written and put to referendum by October. Once the constitution has been passed, candidates will be able to put themselves forward for president and a presidential election will be held within 60 days. Assuming, as is probable, all parts of the process take the maximum amount of time, Egypt is effectively left with a military government until late 2012 or even early 2013 – and that is if there are no unforeseen delays. By that time the SCAF will have been in power for two years will have had the time to entrench its control over Egypt’s political institutions leaving the country in an Algerian-esque part-military/part-civilian political landscape.

Next, the SCAF promises to look into the possibility of “stripping former National Democratic Party members of political rights”. Not only is stripping anybody of their political rights deeply problematic from a human rights standpoint but it must be remembered that Egypt was a one-party state before the revolution. As such, vast numbers of NDP members will have joined the party out of necessity rather than any commitment to Mubarak’s dictatorship. This is especially the case in upper Egypt where big families were courted by the party often with little option other than to work with it.

The final part of the SCAF’s announcement concerns the largely incomprehensible electoral laws. Political parties have vociferously campaigned against article 5 of the new electoral law. As it stands, a third of the MPs in Egypt’s next parliament will be independent candidates. Political parties have decried the law as enabling former Mubarak supporters to gain seats in the parliament and for encouraging vote buying as people vote for individuals and not party manifestos. That political parties call for a larger proportion of seats to go to political parties should come as no surprise. Indeed, the amendment to article 5 should be seen more as the SCAF appeasing the parties than as a genuine concession to democracy and greater civilian control of Egyptian politics.

The argument that the SCAF gave in to popular pressure is undermined by the fact that Friday’s turnout, at between 5,000 to 10,000 was below expectations and far below the level needed to intimidate the SCAF.

Despite hopes that it was a response to democratic pressures, the SCAF document serves only to sap more optimism from those hoping for a democratic, civilian-run, Egypt. It is this dying optimism that is leading to a build up of tension against the SCAF. On Friday I heard for the first time mass chants specifically against leader of the SCAF FIeld Marshal Tantawi with 1000s of people chanting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير (the people want the overthrowing of the field marshal). Without a genuine change in the direction of Egyptian politics an escalation in the tension is inevitable.