Egypt's Islamist Era

Egypt's Islamist Era

Poised to take Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood turns its gaze toward Israel.

The world will probably have to wait for another six months before the dust of Egypt's revolution begins to settle. Meanwhile, after the completion of the first installment of the first stage of the country's first free elections, it is clear that Islamists will probably dominate Egypt’s political landscape in the coming years. This comes after the clear victories of Islamist parties in the parliamentary elections this month in Tunisia and Morocco.

Going into the elections, most opinion polls predicted that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood would gain at least 40 percent of the vote in the elections for parliament's lower house, the People's Assembly, that began this week in a third of the country's provinces, including the major cities of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. Next month and on January 3, two more bouts of voting will complete the election of the lower house, with counting and results due toward the end of January.

The lower house is due to debate and issue a new constitution—defining, among other things, the place and powers of the army and of Islam in the polity—and appoint from its midst a new government or cabinet. This will replace the incumbent interim cabinet appointed recently by the Supreme Military Council, which has ruled Egypt since the overthrow by mass street demonstrations of President Hosni Mubarak back in February.

In February and March of next year, Egyptians will go to the polls once again, this time to elect their representatives in parliament's upper house, or Senate, and by the end of June—if the military's leader, General Tantawi, is to be believed—they will vote for a third time, this time to elect a new president and complete the cycle of elections. The powers of the new president will presumably be defined in the constitution the lower house will hammer out. It is not yet clear whether the Muslim fundamentalists will field a candidate of their own for the presidency. At the moment, the two secularist front-runners for the job are Amr Musa, a hard-line former secretary general of the Arab League, and Mohammed ElBaradei, the (anti-Western, anti-Israeli) former head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tantawi last week promised that the military will relinquish power to the elected leadership, but many Egyptians remain distrustful of the army.

The start of the election process was briefly in doubt last weekend as the secularists and liberals demonstrated in Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding that Tantawi and the military regime step down immediately and hand over power to civilians—it was unclear to which civilians—and that the elections be postponed. But the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best organized political party in the country, sided with Tantawi and backed elections on schedule, and Tantawi stuck to his guns. Voting was mandatory, with those staying away from the polls threatened with fines amounting to one month's average salary.

But it appears that the fragmented secularists, including the masses of tweeting and SMS-ing youngsters who occupied the square and spearheaded last February's revolution, voted as enthusiastically as the veiled womenfolk, hoping to reduce the fundamentalists' say in the future governance of Egypt. The elections, by all accounts, passed smoothly, with only minor problems—a shortage of ballots, late opening of polling stations and some allegations of fraud—reported in several localities. People queued in orderly fashion for hours, and there was a heavy turnout. If the military indeed leaves the stage and moves to the political sidelines, the real battle for Egypt down the road will be between young, Westernized secularists and fundamentalists who wish to impose sharia law on the country.

The demographics are not encouraging. It is reported that some eighty-three thousand Coptic Christians have fled Egypt since February, fearing Muslim intolerance if not repression. And, speaking geopolitically, a taste of what may be in store for the region was afforded in last Friday's Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo, in which the mufti of Egypt declared that the impending elections were only the "first step on the march to Jerusalem"—that is, in the struggle to "liberate" Palestine from the Jews.

A correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz interviewed a number of participants in the rally. He quoted one, Na'il Zihum, an engineer, as saying: "We are . . . for the [anti-Mubarak] revolution, but Jerusalem and the Islamic umma [nation] are our top priorities. First, we are Muslims, and we must tell the Israelis that they cannot exploit the fact that Egypt is busy with elections to harm the Aksa Mosque [the most sacred Muslim site in Palestine/Israel, on Jerusalem's Temple Mount]."

Zihum's reference was to the planned demolition of the temporary Mughrabi Bridge that connects the Wailing Wall Plaza with the entrance to the Temple Mount compound. Israeli engineers and archaeologists have warned that the structure is unsafe and must be demolished, but Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week ordered the postponement of the demolition in order to cool Islamist passions in Cairo.

At the rally, the masses shouted, "Khaybar, Ya Yahud" (Jews, remember Khaybar)—an oasis that was the site of a battle in seventh-century Hejaz in which Muhammad defeated and destroyed one of the region's Jewish tribes. More explicitly, Abd Khaled, a certified public accountant who also participated in the rally, told the Haaretz reporter: "We vow here to fight the Jews until the last drop of our blood. We can't do it now, but we will win the elections, unite the people, strengthen our army and prepare the hearts and minds of the soldiers so that we will be able to go to war against Israel."

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His most recent book is One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009).