On Saturday, March 19, the Egyptian people took part in their first vote since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Sadly, the results of the vote give an edge to the undemocratic and Islamist forces that seek to extinguish the democracy the voters thought they were making. Parliamentary elections could come as early as June and a presidential election in September, giving the more liberal voices little time to organize to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
Over three-fourths of voters supported the proposed amendments that included having elections before the writing of a constitution, limits on presidential emergency powers and a limit of two four-year terms for presidents. The Secretary-General of the Arab League and presidential frontrunner, Amr Moussa, voted against the amendments, as did more liberal secular parties and Coptic Christians that worry that holding elections in such a short period of time would play to the advantage of Mubarak’s party and the Islamists. Mohammed el-Baradei broke with his Brotherhood allies on the issue, causing hundreds of Islamists to throw rocks at him when he tried to vote.
A top Salafi sheikh named Mohamed Hussein Yaqoub praised the results of the vote, saying it was a victory for Islam. “That’s it. The country is ours,” he said. The Muslim Brotherhood predictably applauded the results as well, knowing it leaves minimal time for opponents to organize against them. The Wall Street Journal had reported that “political parties are sprouting like weeds,” raising the possibility that the younger and less conservative members of the Muslim Brotherhood could join other parties. This hopeful trend will now have very little time to culminate in a more encouraging political atmosphere. The Islamists and the NDP have organized for decades in Egypt and the holding of parliamentary elections as soon as June gives them a decisive opportunity to shape the future of the country.
“The main problem here is the next parliament will write the next Constitution. So then the fanatics and the Muslim Brotherhood will govern us for decades,” said Emad Gad of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
The Muslim Brotherhood says its “Freedom and Justice Party” will be formally created in the coming weeks, though the chairman, Mohammed Katatni, tries to cast it as an independence party. The Brotherhood’s leadership admits creating it and Katanani is a senior Brotherhood member. This is a transparent attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of voters and the West. The group is also planning to begin a new satellite television program and various publications including a monthly newspaper. The secular parties besides NDP are simply outmatched.
This means that the parliame two strongest parties going into the parliamentary elections are the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving the secular democratic forces without a strong voice. The scenario is not much better for the secular forces in the presidential election held later, as Ayman Nour seems unable to draw the kind of attention that El-Baradei and Moussa can. The weaknesses of these three candidates give the Brotherhood an opportunity to win the presidency later this year.
Mohammed el-Baradei is in a difficult spot. He says he is a secular democrat but he has treasured the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has denied opposing Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution that makes Islam the official religion and Sharia the principal source of legislation. He has defended the Muslim Brotherhood, saying “they are no extremists” and says that if he is elected, he will build a new relationship with Iran. He has been accused of covering-up for Iran during his tenure as director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and there are allegations that an associate of his received $7 million from an Iranian official in Hungary for a presidential campaign. His past embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood alienates the liberals but he has had a falling out with the Islamists for now, at least, leaving him with few friends.
Amr Moussa currently has a wide lead over el-Baradei in a hypothetical presidential race but an Islamist candidate has yet to emerge. Of the two, Moussa is the most favorable candidate to the West because he is a staunch opponent of Iran. He is much more critical of Israel than Mubarak was (though El-Baradei wouldn’t be any better) and most recently, he criticized the airstrikes in Libya even though his Arab League approved the U.N. resolution authorizing military intervention.
Moussa has weaknesses of his own, though, because of his ties to the previous Egyptian regime and the sheer strength of favorable opinion towards Islamist doctrine. A Pew poll found that 84 percent of Egyptians support executing apostates and 59 percent favor Islamists over modernizers. Nearly half view Hamas favorably and one-fifth support Al-Qaeda. This is especially dangerous in light of the release of Islamic extremists from the prisons, such as the mastermind behind the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
A poll from February shows that Moussa would currently receive 29 percent of the vote; 18 percent would support Mubarak or Omar Suleiman; 4 percent would back El-Baradei and only one percent would favor a Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate. However, this poll is deceptive because it was only taken of residents in Cairo and Alexandria, two of the most Westernized parts of Egypt. This weekend’s election results show why these two cities are not representative of the country as a whole. The strongest opposition to the constitutional amendments came from these large cities, but support from the other areas of a country led to a landslide victory for the proponents of the amendments like the Brotherhood.
The more moderate elements of the Egyptian population in large cities like Cairo and Alexandria offer hope, but they need time to organize because of the massive Islamist support in the poorer areas that have not been subjected to Western influence as much. The Muslim Brotherhood has said it would not run a presidential candidate but the group’s claims that the Freedom and Justice Party is somehow independent paves the way for a candidate to run under that affiliation. It therefore seems that the Brotherhood is positioned to run an Islamist candidate that will face secular opponents that divide the vote amongst themselves.
It is difficult to project the results of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt this year, as the secular forces could coalesce around one bloc or one candidate and there is the possibility of a division in the Islamist ranks. One thing is for sure though: The time is now very short for the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood to play catch-up.