Today, and as I am writing this column on Tuesday, the third stage of the elections for the lower house of the Egyptian parliament has begun. According to the law, the elections are to be conducted over two consecutive days, to be followed by another two days of run-offs the following week. While the winners of most of the 498 seats of the People's Assembly will be decided by 11 January, a final round of elections will be held the following week in order to decide the winners of seats in constituencies across the country that have been annulled by the courts during the elections’ three stages, due to violations of the electoral law.
Thus far, 309 seats have been determined during the first two stages, with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, garnering more than 50 per cent of the seats, 161 to be exact. It seems very likely that the FJP will win another 50 per cent of the 150 seats contested during the elections’ third stage and an equal percentage in the final round when the contested seats are determined, thus achieving a landslide victory and perhaps even an absolute majority in the new parliament.
As is now well-known, the second-biggest winner in the elections has been the ultra-conservative Salafists, represented by the Al-Nour Party, who have succeeded in winning over 25 per cent of the seats thus far determined, or 82 out of 309. Together, the two Islamist groups could theoretically introduce any legislation they wished into the new parliament in order to bring the country into line with their political and ideological programmes. But while on the ideological level these two groups of Political Islam might seem to be close, in reality the evidence suggests that they are not politically as close.
The FJP, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which has more than eight decades of experience in politics, was created with the declared aim of turning the organisation from being an advocacy group to a powerful political actor in the country’s future transition to democracy. The Al-Nour Party, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer on the political scene, with little more than ideological slogans to its credit. These may appeal to the pious poor in the provinces, but they are also likely to alienate important sectors of the politically active groups in the urban centres – the very same groups whose support the Brotherhood is seeking.
Hence, there is good reason to think that the Salafists, with their literalist interpretation of Islam, pose the greatest threat to the FJP, which has been keen since its inception to allay the fear of civil and secular groups by distancing itself from the Salafists. The FJP played a leading role in forming an electoral alliance (the Democratic Alliance) last summer, which included most civil groups. This alliance, however, disintegrated on the eve of the elections, as most of the political groups under this umbrella felt uneasy about the FJP’s monopolising the decision-making because it was the largest and best-organised force within the coalition.
While most of the liberal and secular parties that decided to contest the elections independent of the alliance with the Brotherhood knew that the FJP was poised to emerge as the number one winner, they probably did not imagine that it would be able single-handedly to win half the national vote. But if the size of the victory achieved by the FJP surprised some people, it was the victory of the Salafist Al-Nour Party that sent shock waves through the Egyptian polity and beyond into some international circles. It was the prospect of an alliance between these two forces that worried people most of all.
However, it would be wise to remember that the situation remains fluid and that events could take a very different turn, subject to the intervention of a number of internal, regional and international factors. Internally, while the popularity of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is fading, it is still unlikely that the SCAF will exit the political arena before safeguarding the military’s many economic and political privileges, which are closely linked to US interests in the region. Regionally and internationally, Egypt is a central country in the US Middle East strategy, and neither the US nor Israel will stand idly by while the Brotherhood proceeds to implement its vision of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
An alliance between the Brotherhood and the SCAF is not an altogether unlikely possibility. Indeed, there has been much talk these days, on the side of the Brotherhood at least, of giving the military a safe exit from the political arena. Yet any such alliance will remain one between very odd bedfellows, since these are two potential allies that may be able to stick together for a while but who will have difficulty maintaining their unity for very long because of their divergent interests.
Perhaps the Salafists would be better suited to entering into an alliance with the SCAF if they were encouraged to do so by regional and international powers. As one senior analyst of Political Islam, Tariq Ramadan, noted in a recent article, “in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban refused to consider political involvement; for them it was Islamically wrong. In less than eight months, they organised themselves into one of the main forces in Afghanistan and got involved politically. We later learned that they had been pushed into that position under Saudi pressure.”
“The way towards democracy in Egypt is far from transparent,” Ramadan said, warning against “taking appearances for realities. Islamists might work against Islamists, just as a democratic western government might support a non-democratic military apparatus. This is politics; we must remain vigilant even in our optimism. Religious or not, sincerity in politics is never enough.”