The official results of the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections come out tonight, but a cursory look at initial results presented by parties and reported by the media paint a fairly clear picture: Islamists will be a majority in the next parliament, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, and Salafists have exceeded expectations to be, perhaps, the second party in Egypt.
This news has profoundly depressed most educated, middle class Cairenes I know who had hoped that the overthow of Hosni Mubarak would be followed by a relatively liberal democracy that would be inclusive of moderate Islamists. It is particularly distressing to non-Muslims, who will now fear the Islamization of public life that has taken place in the last two decades will now be accelerated, with full backing from parliament and government leaders in the next few years.
That the Muslim Brothers would perform well was expected: after all their electoral machine is excellent, they have experience and a clear message, and are a known quantity. Six months ago, when they promised to only run for a limited number of seats, it was assumed that they would be about 30% of parliament. They may very well pass the 50% mark, having decided to contest a lot more seats than initially expected. They have done so without a broad alliance with other parties, since the Democratic Alliance they belong to is at least 80% FJP.
The success of the Salafists is more of a surprise, and must reflect their grassroots presence in Egyptian society. But it is deeply worrisome, because the Salafists have made clear in their statements that they are an illiberal party with extreme views on many topics, whatever their charitable works are. I'm my opinion they should have never been legalized, on the same grounds that far-right parties are often forbidden in European countries, and particularly since Egypt has a law against religious parties (either that, or don't have the law.)
The first choice the Muslim Brothers have to face (if they do not have a majority alone) is either to rally Islamists around them or try and create a broader coalition, as they have indicated over the summer they would prefer. It's also a choice for those parties that, in a sense, ran specifically against the Brothers. They have to decide whether pragmatism should trump whatever incompatibilities exist.
Among my Egyptian friends (most decidedly on the liberal side) there is now tremendous worry about a future in which politics is ruled on the one hand by identitarian Islamist politics and on the other by a populist, hyper-nationalistic army. I don't think it has to be so, and we could very well see a transition to a democratic (but not liberal) system which allows for rotation of power. Liberals now also have to make some tough choices about consolidating their presence, making alliances with both Islamists and people associated with the former ruling party. (And never mind the regional impact of this election, the subject of a future post.)
Personally, I think that there can be a positive outcome here: if the Muslim Brothers are serious about consolidating electoral democracy, and work hard on addressing that issue, there will be other elections for those that disagree with their conservative views (or foreign policy, or economic liberalism) to make their case. The biggest lesson from this election should be that the non-Islamists in Egypt need to strategize, organize and cooperate much better than they have done so far — and most importantly of all, reconnect with the average Egyptians who were not inspired to vote for them. The other reason I have for optimism is that even if the elections returned conservative candidates, the Egyptian uprising of 2011 unleashed many progressive ideas, notably with regards to the relationship between state and civilian. That battle will continue to be fought.