Not unsurprisingly, the news that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, along with Salafists, received the bulk of votes cast in Egypt’s first elections since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, was met with dismay by our friends in the media.
“What does this mean!?” pundits on CNN, Fox and whatever other useless channel you’re watching asked.
“Leftists” in the U.S. lamented, as though women would be disappeared–or collectively thrust under a ‘veil’– the very next day. Conservatives were quite jolly: the Mooslums are taking over! We told you it would happen! And let’s not mention the Zionists: well, what election result in Egypt isn’t a threat to ‘democratic’ Israel’s freedom to illegally occupy Palestine?
But we shouldn’t be surprised at the movement of religious parties into power.
The Brotherhood were one of the only viable parties during Mubarak’s 30-year reign. With impressive funds and the numbers to outlast the misfortunes that Mubarak’s opponents seemed to face so often, the Brotherhood was expected by Egyptians to pull strong numbers in the election. As journalist Bobby Ghosh points out in Time, this is not an uncomplicated position they occupy, but a function of good campaigning.
Essam el-Arian, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, commented (in a piece for The Guardian) that these first (relatively) free elections, lively with debate and disagreement, will inspire “increased co-operation for the greater good of our country; and the stability of Egypt, its transition to democracy and building of a democratic society.” In another opinion piece in the Guardian, Wadah Khanfar (the former director general of the Al Jazeera network) attempted to clarify what “Islamism” is in an opinion piece for The Guardian:
“Islamist” is used in the Muslim world to describe Muslims who participate in the public sphere, using Islam as a basis. It is understood that this participation is not at odds with democracy … This disconnect in the understanding of the term in the west and in the Muslim world was often exploited by despotic Arab regimes to suppress Islamic movements with democratic political programs.
Khanfar calls for concessions from both Islamist parties and those (particularly in the West) who oppose them, but whether this will proceed smoothly remains to be seen. Coalition building will be essential to the future of Egypt and any democratic vision its citizens and leaders are attempting to build.
The Egyptian military is well aware of this. In a press conference to “a group of almost exclusively American journalists” that “did not include any representatives of the Egyptian news media,” General Mokhtar al-Molla catered to U.S. fears of “Islamism” by promising the military council will “approve” all constitutional changes before they are put in place. Using almost the same language Mubarak did to defend his dictatorship, al-Molla declared Egypt is too “unstable” for citizens to have made truly wise electoral decisions on their own.
Egypt’s military leaders are not even pretending to be on our side anymore. And given the port workers in Suez who refused to accept a delivery of 21 tons of tear gas from the United States intended for the Ministry of the Interior (notorious for torturing activists under Mubarak and under the current military rulers), I doubt we have to worry about “Islamists” or anyone else “hijacking” the anti-SCAF movement anytime soon. The military will not be gently persuaded to give up power (Egypt has been under military rule since the 1952 coup), and all factions – religious or not – must participate in bringing them down. We cannot have truly free elections in a country that is not truly free. We need time to foment real and sustainable political parties to bring down the army’s regime, not depend on an indistinguishable two-party model – the sort the United States boasts. Time–and the inexhaustible energy of Egyptian activists–will tell what this election will mean for the future of Egypt.