The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party appeared to be a big winner in the first round of parliamentary elections held in Egypt on Monday and Tuesday. Early returns suggest the FJP captured as much as 40% of the vote with a surprisingly strong showing from the Salifist al-Nour party. The two Islamist parties together could very well make an absolute majority of 65% of the parliament, which means if voting continues along these lines during the rest of the complex process, it is likely that the first freely elected parliament in Egypt’s history will be run by radical Muslims.
The military congratulated itself on how smoothly the vote went despite apparent blatant electioneering at most polling sites by the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties, which is against the law. It hardly mattered since it was clear that the FJP was going to get a large plurality of the vote simply because it was the only party with any name recognition. As soon as it became apparent that the FJP was going to surpass pre-election expectations, the Muslim Brotherhood turned on its erstwhile allies on the military council, calling for an early transfer of power to civilian authorities.
Also accepting the results, albeit with fear and trepidation, were Egypt’s Coptic Christians who fear that an Islamist government will be even harsher than the current military regime has been.
As for the protestors in Tahrir Square, their credibility suffered a blow as the elections appeared to be conducted in a mostly fair and free manner. The National Democratic Institute, which oversaw the foreign observers who monitored the election, issued a statement praising the vote but suggesting that the blatant violations of election laws regarding campaigning at polling spots be better enforced. And while the young activists who brought down the Mubarak regime earlier in the year urged a boycott of the elections, authorities estimated that up to 70% of eligible voters in the 9 provinces that voted this week turned out to cast ballots. Two more rounds of elections in the other 18 provinces – 9 at a time – will be held in the coming weeks with runoff elections for candidates not receiving 50% of the vote held one week after the initial voting.
The complexity of the voting process played right into the hands of the FJP. Voters had to choose two individual candidates and one party list or their ballot would be invalidated. Because of its many decades of charity work with the Egyptian poor, the Brotherhood had a ready-made base of support which it capitalized on by setting up “information” booths right next to polling stations to help voters – many of whom were illiterate – in choosing who to cast their ballots for. The Associated Press described one such “information” center:
Outside polling stations around the country, Brotherhood activists were set up with laptop computers in booths, helping voters find their district and voter numbers — which they wrote on cards advertising the party’s candidates. Elsewhere, they posted activists outside to wave banners, pass out flyers or simply chat up voters waiting in line.
For the illiterate, there were symbols next to which they could mark their ballot. And the FJP made sure that the voters knew which symbols stood for the Brotherhood candidates.
The confusion over who was running and what the parties stood for didn’t help the largest secular mix of parties, the Egyptian Bloc, which is composed of neo-liberal Free Egyptians; the socialist Gathering party; and the Egyptian Socialist Democrats. The better known but even smaller Wafd party, a Mubarak-era organization of liberals and academics, apparently didn’t have much of a showing either. Dr. Barry Rubin points out that the secularists wasted their energy in protesting military rule rather than organizing, uniting, and getting out the vote. Given the several decade head start in organizing that the Brotherhood enjoyed, they may not have won, but they certainly would have had a better showing and a chance for larger representation at the table when negotiations over forming the new government begin.
Besides patting themselves on the back for conducting the elections on time, the generals were expressing their pleasure at the size of the turnout. Major Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of the ruling council, said the vote “responds to all those who were skeptical that elections will take place on time.” He added that the turnout was “unprecedented in the history of the Arab world’s parliamentary life.”
Perhaps the size of the turnout had something to do with the fine of 500 Egyptian pounds – around $85 – that the military will impose on those who did not cast their ballots. In a country where nearly half the people earn less than a dollar a day, the fine may have convinced most of them to make it to the polls. In Alexandria, the Globe and Mail reports that people brought their elderly parents to the polls, standing in line with them so they could avoid paying the fine. “You think any of these candidates can change anything? Of course not. Ask anyone here – wouldn’t see these lines without the fine,” said one voter.
Now that the Brotherhood is on the cusp of seizing power, what is it exactly it wants to do with it? Prior to the vote, the Brotherhood backed the military’s position on the Tahrir Square protestors, withdrawing its supports of the latest demonstrations early on. It made a deal with the military to move up the presidential election from July of 2013 to July of 2012. The Brotherhood also negotiated the electoral process itself and steered clear of suggesting an early return to civilian rule.
But the coming electoral victory appears to have emboldened the Islamists. Despite what FJP leaders say was a “convergence” of interests with the military in the past, the party is now demanding the right to form a government without interference from the military, and subsequently choose a civilian cabinet. This almost certainly won’t sit well with the military council because it is likely that parliament would want to set up its own process for writing a new constitution – a deadly threat to the military, which has made it clear it will tolerate no scrutiny of its budget, no change in the economic advantages members hold, and will expect to have a strong voice in running the new parliament.
“The Brotherhood wants a strong parliament and the military council wants a weak one. The reason the Brotherhood fought for parliament is because they’re going to use it as an agent of change,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. He adds that the path the FJP has chosen has put it on a collision course with the military.
That change is what has Egypt’s 10 million Coptic Christians so worried. Since Mubarak’s ouster, many violent incidents have taken place pitting extremist Muslims against the small Coptic communities. There have been murders of clergy, church burnings, oppression by local government officials, and just last month, a demonstration by Copts in Cairo that saw the military actually open fire on the demonstrators and run them over with armored personnel carriers. The violence has driven 100,000 Coptic families from the country with more leaving every month.
But the Copts have been in Egypt since the first century AD and most of them have no intention of leaving. Father Ishak, a priest at a Cairo church said, “We picked the Egyptian Bloc because it’s the most liberal group and because they are against religious parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood.” He added, “And if elections are free and fair, it will mean that Copts are more clearly represented and be more active in building a new Egypt.”
The Brotherhood will probably move cautiously in fulfilling its Islamist agenda. The military is still very powerful and is opposed to the idea of Egypt becoming an Islamic state. To protect its position in Egyptian society, it might resort to armed force. This will make the FJP’s job doubly difficult because the party has promised free market reforms that would put a crimp in the military’s control of the economy. Rather than give the military an excuse to kick it out, it is more likely that the FJP will follow the example of the Turkish Justice and Development party that has gradually established control over the courts, the parliament, and finally the military since its victory in 2002.
A new day dawns in Egypt. Elections are a fine and wonderful thing, but elevating the Muslim Brotherhood to power, whose hatred of Israel and whose real agenda is undemocratic and injurious to personal freedom, will undoubtedly usher in a dark age after the dawn, which the Egyptian people will come to bitterly regret.
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