Hello everyone,

It has been awhile since I last wrote, but I am back at it.  Continuing from my last post, I want to talk about Islamists.

Today is the first meeting of the Egyptian People’s Assembly.  It is the product of historic elections where, despite a number of problems which I have previously discussed, Egyptians were finally able to cast a vote in relatively free and fair elections.  Again, there were problems and I want to emphasize that all I am saying is that they are free and fair in comparison to anything Egyptians under the age of 60 have ever known; they represent progress, no matter how minimal.

However, in both international and domestic reporting, the media continues to get it wrong when it comes to the so-called ‘Islamists’.  This group is identified as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – which received 47% of the seats in parliament – and the ultra-conservative Salafists’ El-Nour party – which received 25% of the seats in the new parliament.  Even news-sources which generally have good reporting (Al-Jazeera internationally, Al-Masry Al-Youm domestically) are making the serious mistake of lumping both of these parties together under the same banner of ‘Islamist’.

Yes, they are both implicitly motivated by faith, despite the fact that that is illegal under Egyptian party/election law.  And yes, both parties have come out with troubling statements about what policies they intend to enact, specifically in regards to the creation of a religious state and the restriction of freedoms on Copts and tourists (ie. consumption of alcohol, not addressing much-needed reforms in laws regulating the construction of churches).  But, to assume that they will join forces in the new parliament is a serious mistake.

There are a number of reasons for this, I will highlight the two most important ones.

First and foremost, the FJP is considerably more moderate than El-Nour, and it need to distance itself from the Salafis if it is to hold on to its moderate members who comprise a significant amount of FJP’s voter base.  While El-Nour has tried to reign in its most conservative elements, it is associated with a rise in so-called ‘moral-police’, among other troubling trends.  These are bands of men who have decided that their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam should be enforced through vigilante justice.  Unsurprisingly, these vigilante groups closely resemble those in Saudi Arabia, as Salafism is derived from Wahhabism which is the dominant religious sect in Saudi Arabia.  This, combined with their radical statements concerning gender segregation and the rights of minorities/ women in their ideal Egypt, has made their appeal very limited in Egypt; much more-so than election results indicate.  FJP, on the other hand, has become considerably more moderate throughout the course of the elections.  Whether or not they will follow-through with this remains to be seen.  However, from a number of people I know and have spoken to who voted for FJP, their loyalty is not un-wavering. If FJP fails to make progress in Egypt, they will lose the support of a significant voter base who voted FJP because they think they have the best chance to implement change but who do not support El-Nour’s radical agenda.  To put it simply, if the FJP intends to maintain majority support in Egypt they must keep significant distance between their policies and those of El-Nour because El-Nour represents, and is acceptable to only an ultra-conservative minority in Egypt.  El-Nour’s supporters are not actually a quarter of the Egyptian population and the FJP knows this.

Secondly, FJP and El-Nour just spent the last three months in political and, occasionally, physical conflict with one-another.  If there is one thing the American system has taught me it is that when there are two major parties in prolonged political conflict with one-another, they come out of it highly polarized.  This is true for Egypt as well.  Half of the parliamentary seats were allocated based on party list system which, simply put, means that people vote for a party and the winner takes a majority of seats.  In a majority of the run-off votes associated with the list system, it was El-Nour v. FJP, and they fought each other hard; even to the point of violence in a number of cases.  As such, FJP has come out of elections not willing to work with El-Nour.  They have made a number of public statements to this effect and have made clear their intention to work with secular parties in forming a majority coalition in parliament, not El-Nour or El-Wafd (the other ‘Islamist’ party).  Their opposition to El-Wafd is due to the fact that the party  has a large number of former NDP members (or Fulul as they are called in Egypt).

So, it is incorrect to lump El-Nour and the FJP together because they are far from unified and are highly unlikely to form a coalition in the new parliament.  I have read something to the effect of “Islamists capture 75% of the seats in parliament” way too frequently; it is a gross and misleading misrepresentation of the truth of the matter.  And even in the off chance that El-Nour and FJP do reconcile and chose to work together, they face expectations which are going to be impossible to meet.  Egypt has an overwhelming number of very deeply-entrenched social, economic and political problems.  People are expecting the next government to make rapid progress on all these things, something which no government is capable of.  This is the nature of politics; you start with a lot of promises on the campaign trail and are never able to meet them all.  Inevitably, those in power loose popularity.  President Obama came into office with a comfortable electoral mandate but is now in serious danger of loosing to whichever clown the Republicans put forward (sorry but not sorry, the Republican nominees became a complete joke after Jon Huntsman dropped out).  In Egypt, the military’s reputation has suffered significantly since being visibly put in charge of the country because people expected a lot from it and it largely failed to deliver.  Also, shooting protesters and curb-stomping women didn’t help.

If you remain one of those who buys into the Islamist boogyman, then take heart: the military is still going to have control over the civilian government and wouldnt let anything happen to its precious $1.3 billion leash from the US.  And, as always, the US remains willing to tug that leash and likely made that very clear to the FJP in a number of recent meetings between FJP leadership and American diplomatic envoys.  However, encouraging for those of us who are opposed to American interference and dont much care for the Muslim Brotherhood having the majority power in the country, is that they are going to let people down.  As I said, there is no way they can meet the expectations people have of this government.  They are expected to implement wide-spread improvements, and to do it quickly, two things that rarely happen, especially not in a country still undergoing a revolution.  So, they will dissapoint people and they will either lose popularity and power or they will resort to being another NDP.  While obviously the former is preferable, either way the bottom line is that Egyptians, and the world, need to remain vigilant and recognize that the revolution is far from over and that parties who do not remain fully committed to democratization need to be challenged peacefully and democratically if Egypt is to successfully emerge from this period.  But at the same time, no party should not be given a chance to achieve this: if I am wrong and FJP keeps its head above water than that means they are in fact fit to see Egypt through this period of transition.

Thank you for reading.  As always please give me some comments and I will be happy to answer any questions.