Let the showdown begin

Mona Anis , Friday 13 Jan 2012

As the Islamists celebrate a landslide victory in Egypt’s first democratic elections, the question of which political force is likely to ally itself with which other poses itself now

With ten days to go before the lower chamber of the Egyptian parliament, the People’s Assembly, is scheduled to open, the elections are drawing to a conclusion. The results of the run-offs of the third and final stage are being announced as I write this column, thus deciding over 95 per cent of the seats in the Assembly, leaving less than 5 per cent to next week when voters in a number of constituencies, previously annulled by court decision due to legal violations, will go to the polls between now and January 20, subject to a court decision for each constituency, to cast their votes for a second time. 

Due to the complicated electoral system adopted in the election, one that mixes a party list system with individual candidacies voted for by simple majority (two-thirds for the former and one third for the latter), precise figures regarding who won what will not be available before the final results are announced a day or two before the opening of the Assembly on 23 February. However, figures released by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and overall winner in the elections, confirm the landslide victory of the Islamist groups in general, and of the FJP in particular.

While the FJP had garnered 161 out of the 309 seats decided during the first two stages of the elections, this number has now risen to 233 out of the approximately 470-480 seats thus far determined. On the other hand, the Salafist Al-Nour Party, which had garnered 82 seats by the end of the second stage, has now won another 39 seats, meaning that the Party now has 121 seats, representing over 25 per cent of the total number of seats contested up to now. These percentages of 50 per cent for the FJP and 25 per cent for the Salafists, plus or minus two per cent, have been constants of the elections throughout. While together, the FJP and the Salafists are a commanding majority, it remains doubtful whether the FJP would want to form a permanent alliance with Al-Nour.

Indeed, it is this question of which party is likely to ally itself with which other that now preoccupies political forces both within and outside parliament. Within parliament, other than the ascendant Islamist groups there are two other liberal forces, the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc, each of which possesses some 10 per cent of the seats, with the remaining seats being divided up amongst the smaller parties and independents. Outside parliament, there is the country's de facto ruler, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the young revolutionaries who for the past few months have been challenging the authority of the SCAF by staging demonstrations and sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and who are now demanding that the SCAF hand over power to the People's Assembly by 25 January, the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak one year ago.

So far, the Islamists have largely distanced themselves from the young militants on the streets, paying only lip service to the causes that have made them take to the streets, often in their hundreds and sometimes in their thousands. Since last summer, the Islamists have steered away from getting involved in occupations or street battles staged by the young radicals, focusing instead on getting ready for the elections. Indeed, it was their total absorption in preparing for the elections and avoiding any clashes that might have endangered the long process of campaigning for and contesting the elections that brought the Islamists closer to the ruling SCAF.

Now that the major part of the parliamentary elections will soon be over (the elections to the upper chamber of the parliament, which has only consultative status, and of the much smaller number of elected representatives being of no great consequence), the door is wide open to a repositioning by all the political forces that contested the elections, though perhaps not by the SCAF or the militants who want to bring down its rule. The former remains entrenched in the position of wanting to safeguard its interests and privileges before it exits the political arena, while the latter will hear of nothing less than the immediate exit of the SCAF from power without any safety guarantees.

This repositioning of forces might carry some surprises with it. The FJP, having emerged from the elections as the most powerful political force in the country, might want to try to regain some of the popularity it lost with the radical youth by taking a firmer stance vis-à-vis the SCAF, especially now that the SCAF is clamping down on opposition to its rule. In an attempt to quell what remains of the radical wave that swept the country over the past year, the security forces are now dealing much more harshly with the street protests, claiming that the radicals taking part in them are endangering the country’s national security by bringing about a “rift between the armed forces and the Egyptian people.”

During this week alone, five leading pro-Tahrir figures, including the popular imam of the Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square, popularly known as the “orator of the Revolution,” have been summoned by the prosecutor-general to answer questions relating to their role in allegedly instigating the riots that took place in Qasr El-Aini Street off Tahrir Square in December.

Meanwhile, the Al-Nour Party seems to be keen on allying itself with the SCAF, and it has defended the military, accusing dissenting voices of endangering the stability of the state. The Salafists have not been able either to resist the temptation of getting engaged in antiquated fights about Islam and the implementation of Sharia Law in the country. This week, they forced business tycoon Naguib Sawiris to stand in court, accused of “insulting Islam” by forwarding a picture of cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Mini Mouse dressed as Salafists on Twitter, Micky bearded and wearing a galabiyya and Mini in full veil. Though it is likely that Sawiris will be acquitted of the charge when he attends the court next week, the incident has been taken by many as a sign of things to come should the Salafists carry out their threat to act as the country’s de facto moral police.

If the Salafists continue, as many expect them to do, with their skewed agenda, then this is likely to cause the Muslim Brotherhood to try to distance itself from them still further and to rely more and more on other parliamentary allies among the non-Islamist forces. However, this will depend to a great extent on whether the Brotherhood can obtain a simple majority of the seats in the new parliament, something that will not be clear before the final count is announced.

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