The elections' three questions

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Tuesday 6 Dec 2011

Voters were asked three questions on Election Day - about the country's future, about revolutionary legitimacy, and about the thorny issue of Egypt's identity

The electoral victory by Islamist parties in the first round of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls came as no surprise. Rather, it was an expected outcome given their political and social performances, as well and those of their electoral rivals. Polling results, however, do not signal the end of the revolution; nor do they pose a threat to civil liberties, as has been suggested.

On Election Day, voters were asked three questions. The first was about their willingness to take part in deciding the country’s future. Despite some activists’ calls to boycott the polls, an unprecedentedly high turnout – 62 per cent of registered voters – reflected Egyptians’ eagerness to participate in the political process, and their concomitant rejection of attempts to control their democratic will and limit their sovereignty by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and certain politicians and activists. If the next two electoral rounds see a similar turnout, the incoming parliament’s popular mandate will supersede the SCAF’s de facto legitimacy.

The second question was about the public’s position vis-à-vis the revolution. Voters were asked to choose between forces associated with the former regime and the forces of change. Following the SCAF’s failure to deliver on promises to ban remnants of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) from contesting elections, the decision to exclude them from political life had to be made at the ballot box.

Numerous commentators had suggested that NDP remnants – the dreaded felool – might win a considerable number of parliamentary seats. Not only were they able to arrange themselves in seven political parties by capitalising on their electoral experience and existing patronage networks, but several also managed to ally themselves with different political groups that also hoped to capitalise on those very same strengths.

Nevertheless, Egyptians chose to vote out the felool. Their parties received only a small minority of votes, while other parties that featured felool on their electoral lists were harshly punished by the voting public, receiving a percentage of votes hardly in proportion to their long history and expensive electoral campaigns.

Egyptians were also faced with the question of identity on Election Day. The polarisation currently dominating Egypt’s political arena necessitated a choice between the “Islamist” and “secular” identity, with the ambiguous definitions of both being challenged from within each respective camp. As expected, voters overwhelmingly chose the former.

The choice did not reflect the acceptance of Islam as a political ideology, but rather as a frame of reference. According to Gallup statistics, only 27 per cent of Egyptians support Islamists (i.e., those who believe in Islam as a political ideology) with their different orientations (15 per cent for the Muslim Brotherhood; 7 per cent for the Salafists; and 5 per cent for the Wasat Party), while up to 85 per cent endorse an Islamic approach to politics.

An overwhelming majority voted for Islamist parties for a number of reasons, chief of which is the identity-based polarisation currently characterising the political sphere. An initial attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to form an electoral alliance of various “revolutionary forces” failed when more “secular” forces responded to the predominantly Salafist 29 July demonstration in Tahrir Square by breaking out and forming the Egyptian Bloc.

Initially comprised of at least seven parties, the Bloc is now left with only three: neoliberal, social democrat and communist. The only common denominator currently uniting the Bloc is hostility towards Islamism. The absence of a clear platform, due to its wide diversity, led to the popular perception that the bloc was not only anti-Islamist, but also anti-Islamic. This, in turn, limited the Bloc’s potential to the 15 per cent or so of Egyptians who aspire to push Islam out of the public sphere.

Driven by both political opportunity and fear of loss, Salafist and other Islamist groups withdrew from the FJP-led coalition to form their own Islamist alliance. The Bloc’s self-imposed limitations and the FJP’s political experience preventing it from vulgarly playing the identity card have both served to magnify the opportunity. The former collaborated in a highly polarised context, while the latter fell short of capturing votes cast purely on the basis of identity.

This polarisation led to the disempowerment of more centrist groups, including the Wasat and Adl parties and the “Revolution Continues” electoral coalition. The FJP, nonetheless, hardly lost votes to the Salafists. Capitalising on the Brotherhood’s formidable capacity to organise and rich electoral experience, it was able to overcome the consequences of this polarisation.

Despite winning an absolute majority so far, however, an Islamist government in Egypt appears unforeseeable. Political experience, eagerness to lead a mainstream national movement, and the need to share responsibility in transformational decisions will push the FJP closer and closer to the centre. Organisational fears of identity politics and its impact on the next election, meanwhile, along with the need to distinguish itself, will push the party away from Salafists.

The process, however, will be a slow one, and one should not expect the FJP’s leadership to make bold reassuring statements like those made by the Tunisian Nahda Party. The rapid politicisation of Salafists without diluting identity politics means that, if the FJP moves too fast, it will risk losing the support of its religiously conservative constituency to the Salafists.

The FJP should be encouraged to move towards the centre and form governing alliances with centrist parties. This could only be facilitated by transforming the focus from questions of identity – which empower Salafists and trigger Islamist unity – to questions of policy, emphasising the need for political sophistication and experience. The FJP has already issued several declarations committing itself to democracy and civil liberties, and should be encouraged to uphold these commitments.

Egypt’s non-Islamist political movement, meanwhile, has lost considerable ground by allying against Islamists, which has served to emphasise the question of identity instead of neutralising it. Their electoral campaigns continue to stress the “hazards” associated with Islamist political ascendency while entirely failing to present a political program, thus risking the loss of yet more ground.

It is now up to these forces to capitalise on the FJP’s need to transform itself into a mainstream movement, and to focus on questions of policy, not identity. Otherwise, the country will be held hostage to a fruitless debate on identity that will only serve to impede badly needed development efforts.

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