Political parties with clear Islamic identities appear to be gaining a majority in preliminary results from Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections: the Muslim Brotherhood backed Freedom and Justice Party has around 40% of the vote and a further 25% went to the more extreme Salafi, An-Nour party. While the Brotherhood and the FJP have pledged to respect democratic principles and the rights of other Egyptians, the Salafis are explicitly hostile to the rights of women and minorities and to freedom of expression.
These parties believe that the law of God is superior to that of men and that they are in unique possession of the authoritative interpretation of the divine will. Their apparent strength is bad news for human rights in Egypt, but it should focus the minds of those who wish to see Egypt’s democratic transition move forward.
Here are five reasons not to give up on Egypt’s democratic transition at the first hurdle:
- This is just the first step in a convoluted process that should see Egyptians voting on multiple occasions over the next two years or so. These parliamentary elections will not be over until March 2012 and, even then, it is unclear what powers the new parliament will wield. It is quite probable that there will be further parliamentary elections in 2013 after a new constitution has been written and approved. By then (assuming that Egypt gets to this point), the novelty of voting in competitive elections will have worn off and new political parties and coalitions will have had time to build national organizations to compete with the long established Brotherhood on a more level playing field.
- The ruling military council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has promised to hold presidential elections by June 2012. This is likely to be the main political event, attracting the largest turn-out in a less complex electoral process. The winner of that election will emerge as the Egyptian leader with greatest democratic legitimacy and he or she will occupy the most powerful political office in the land. So far, the Brotherhood has said that it will not run a candidate. So even if an Islamist dominated legislature is the result of the parliamentary elections, it will be just one leg of a three-legged power structure with the presidency and the SCAF in the other corners. That will not result in Islamist domination of Egyptian politics.
- The unexpectedly strong electoral showing of the Salafis presents a challenge for the Muslim Brotherhood. While some parts of the Brotherhood certainly identify with the moderate strain of democratic Islamism that is prospering in Turkey, and in Tunisia and Morocco, there are also more traditional, more illiberal elements. The Brotherhood will have to define itself against ultra-conservative Salafis, which should oblige it to find common cause with secular parties and groups that will be intent on blocking the Salafis’ radical agenda. This battle within Islamism will build pressure on the Freedom and Justice party to emerge as a truly democratic party, or to revert to an illiberal authoritarian Islamism that would be out of step with the region’s most dynamic and popular movements.
- Despite appalling organization and uncertainty up until the last day as to whether the elections would be held, or not, the largely peaceful conduct of the voting, the huge turn out and the apparent absence of serious incidents of fraud, intimidation of voters or ballot stuffing provides a welcome contrast to the practices of the Mubarak regime and is a striking testament to the commitment of Egyptians to democratic politics. Any parties that would subvert this process would likely face a popular backlash. The conduct of voters suggests that Egyptians have the will to push through their democratic transition to a positive outcome.
- Giving democracy a chance is better than the alternatives. Egypt’s ruling military junta could forget about these elections, appoint a government and carry on ruling as they have done for the last months and as they have done behind the scenes since 1952. The SCAF has not covered itself in glory during its nine months in office. It has run the economy into the ground, exacerbated sectarian tensions, maintained and expanded the Emergency Law, attacked independent civil society groups and bloggers, engaged in the use of excessive force against protesters and in the torture and mistreatment of detainees. It has failed to bring the stability that it claims as its main competency and shown that its main interest is in protecting its privileges and avoiding accountability for its misdeeds.
Egypt's democratic transition faces two main threats: subversion by anti-democratic religious extremists; and obstruction by an authoritarian military junta loathe to yield power to civilian rule. Those who support continuing democratic progress in Egypt must oppose both of these enemies.