It’s been a historic week for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the prime beneficiary in the first round of voting for the country’s new parliament. Fully 62 per cent of eligible Egyptians cast ballots this week, and more of them voted for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party than for any other party or alliance.
While election officials declined Friday evening to reveal returns until all three rounds of voting have been completed in early January, leaks from the organization and from judges overseeing the process indicate that about 40 per cent of the ballots were cast for the Islamist FJP.
For them, that’s the good news.
However, the last thing the Brotherhood wanted was to have its upstart Islamist rivals, the Salafists, running in second place in the voting, with as much as 25 per cent of the vote.
Not only do the two Islamist groups not see eye-to-eye on policies or tactics, but the unexpected rise of the Salafists has put the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in a difficult position. On the one hand, the party risks losing potential votes to the more extreme and fundamentalist Salafists; on the other, it risks losing the potential votes of people suddenly frightened by the prospect of an Islamist majority in the new parliament.
As the two Islamist blocs head into the religiously conservative Egyptian provinces for the next two rounds of balloting, it is the Salafist bloc more than the Muslim Brotherhood that might see its share of the vote grow.
As for secular voters, the fact that the combined Islamist vote is about 65 per cent of the total makes it very difficult for secular parties to come up with a blocking minority of about 34 per cent. That was the goal expressed by the leading secular party, the Free Egyptians.
They and their partners in the Egyptian Bloc – the Social Democrats and the left-wing Tagammu – are concerned about the possibility that Islamists might dominate parliament and see to it that the constitutional assembly the parliament is to choose would similarly be dominated by those sympathetic to an Islamist agenda.
Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, insisted in an interview this week that the Brotherhood wants a “balanced” assembly, one that reflects all parts of Egyptian society. It does not want to stack the process that drafts the country’s constitution, he said.
But with the results of this election showing an Egypt much more religiously fundamentalist than anyone imagined, minorities such as Christians and secular Muslims have every reason to want a better guarantee against policies that would lessen freedoms and discriminate against minorities.
The kind of restrictions on expression that many fear was hinted at Thursday night when a leading member of the Salafist bloc denounced on television the writing of the late Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz.
Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, a Salafist candidate in Alexandria and spokesman for the umbrella organization The Salafist Call, described the Mahfouz works as “inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism.” He would have them banned.
Novelist Howeida Saleh reacted strongly to Mr. El-Shahat’s statement. He told the Al Ahram newspaper: “We have long stressed the importance of respecting democracy and giving Islamists the opportunity to demonstrate their cultural and political approach; but we have not had a revolution so that the likes of El-Shahat come to smear our cultural symbols and call us atheists as soon as they start rising to power.”
The Salafist spokesman has previously called for covering up Pharaonic monuments because they represent a culture that did not worship God, and has denounced those who promote democracy, rather than God’s word, as atheists.
“These people are uncultured,” said Rana Hosni, 52, a banker in Alexandria. “They are not qualified to run for parliament. But it’s the price we pay in the early stages of democracy.
“I only hope they will mature with time, before it is too late,” she said.
Mr. El-Shahat, who failed to get a majority of the votes in the Alexandria constituency in which he ran this week, will face off against a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood in a run-off election Monday.
In this and in many other races, secular Muslims and Christians will probably be rooting for the Brotherhood’s candidate.