The Skeptics

Egypt’s Pragmatic Islamists

As many expected, Islamist parties will form a dominant majority in Egypt’s first freely elected parliament. The Islamists are here to stay, and fearmongering over their rise is unproductive, since Egyptians will judge for themselves whether Islamists are delivering on their promises. Moreover, understanding the dynamics that brought religious parties to power should be the real goal and will ultimately prove more useful to those engaging this nascent democracy.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of Egypt’s underground religious fraternity, the Muslim Brotherhood, won almost half the seats in parliament. The al-Nour Party and the Islamist Alliance, a coalition of puritanical Salafist parties more conservative than the Brotherhood, came in second with 25 percent of the vote. Combined, Islamists have taken about two-thirds of the seats in the new assembly. If placed on a generic right-left political spectrum, Salafis and other archconservatives would be on the Far Right, socialists and non-Islamists would be on the Far Left, and the liberal and moderate nationalist parties like al-Wafd would fall somewhere in the middle alongside the right-of-center Muslim Brotherhood. The movement advocates the system of a ceremonial president overseeing foreign policy and a prime minister in control of domestic affairs. It decided not to field a candidate for the presidency.

Egyptians in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular prefer stability and economic growth to waging jihad. On the one hand, the Brotherhood vows to never recognize Israel; on the other its deputy chairman recently claimed, “We have announced clearly that we as Egyptians will abide by the commitments made by the Egyptian government. . . . They are all linked to institutions and not individuals.” On war, renowned French social scientist Olivier Roy explains that Egypt’s religious parties are constrained by democratic mechanisms that hold the people’s legitimacy:

The “Islamic” electorate in Egypt today is not revolutionary; it is conservative. It wants order. It wants leaders who will kick-start the economy and affirm conventional religious values, but it is not ready for the great adventure of a caliphate or an Islamic republic. And the Muslim Brotherhood knows this.

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