Understanding Egypt's Islamist Turn

Understanding Egypt's Islamist Turn

Two-thirds of Egyptian voters chose Islamists. What the takeover will mean for the country and the region.

Egypt’s temporary ruling government, or Supreme Military Council, decided against publishing the results of the first round of elections to the People's Assembly, or parliamentary lower house. This reflected shock and worry over the unexpected success of the Salafist Al Nour movement—which, according to Al Jazeera and other knowledgable observers, won 24.4 percent of the popular vote in first-round districts, including Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

While the 36.6 percent reportedly won by the Muslim Brotherhood's "Freedom and Justice" list was no surprise, it was considered remarkable that the two Islamist parties together apparently netted almost two-thirds of the popular vote (which may, in the end, give them an even larger proportion of the seats in the lower house). Egypt's other districts, by and large more rural and less educated, are expected to produce results at least as favorable, if not more so for the fundamentalists.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which in recent years has avowed its belief in democracy and human rights and has rejected violence as a means of achieving power, is expected to head the coalition government that emerges after the various rounds of elections—for the lower house, the upper house (the Senate), and the presidency—next summer. Whether that coalition will include the Salafists or only the secular and liberal parties, which were trounced in the November vote, remains unclear. The most powerful of them—the "Egyptian Faction"—won only 13.4 percent of the votes. It is not clear what the the reaction will be from the military. The officer class is Egypt's traditional bastion of secularism (as Turkey's military was, before its recent purge by the country's Islamist government) and has important economic interests that the fundamentalists will likely want to dismantle.

Since its 1928 founding, the Muslim Brotherhood's credo has been: "Allah is our objective; the Koran is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations." The movement's main societal goals are to enshrine sharia, or Koranic religious law, as "the basis controlling the affairs of state and society" and “liberate Islamic countries . . . from foreign imperialism." This includes Palestine, an "Islamic country" by the Brotherhood's lights, which must be liberated from Zionism, which it sees as a form of "foreign imperialism." Geopolitically, the movement's goal has always been the resurrection of an Islamic empire stretching from Indonesia to Spain (once an Islamic domain which, according to Islamic doctrine, must revert to Muslim rule).

Many in the West, taken in by the recent professions of "moderation" by Brotherhood spokesmen, have ignored the documents that define the movement's "eternal" verities.

The Salafists have the same general vision for the internal reordering of Egypt and for the Muslims' geopolitical future, but they seek its immediate translation into policy and reality, whereas the Brotherhood has adopted, or so they claim, a gradualist approach resting on persuasion rather than coercion. Sheikh Abdul Moneim al-Shahat, one of the Al Nour leaders, recently explained in a television debate that the Salafists wish to rule a state in which "citizenship will be restricted by the sharia, freedom will be restricted by the sharia and equality will be restricted by the sharia.” This implies that Egypt’s millions of Coptic Christians will lose their citizenship and women will be denied equality.

Salafism, a movement originating with Muslim reformists in Cairo in the mid-nineteenth century (though Salafist spokesmen insist that it really "started" with Muhammad in the seventh century), believes that Muslims must return to the pristine piety and puritan values of Islam's first generations in the Arabian desert. Jihad against the infidels is a major component of the Salafi worldview.

Commentators explain the electoral success of both the Brotherhood and Al Nour as resulting from of the innate religious conservatism of the Egyptian people but also as stemming from extensive civic good works—free medical services, distribution of "pita bread, rice and beans [ful]" to the masses, averting starvation. These have been the trademarks of the fundamentalist for decades and in the political realm often make up for the deficiencies of the corrupt and unegalitarian practices of the military regime that has ruled Egypt since 1952. In addition, both the Brotherhood and various Salafi parties that together form the Al Nour list have recruited and organized popular support for decades, arriving at the current election process well organized and focused.

The same can’t be said for their liberal-secularist rivals, who led the revolutionary protests last January-February that toppled the Mubarak government and more recently deterred effective intervention by the military in the ongoing political process. These people focused on getting Mubarak and the military out, not on organizing and recruiting popular support. They now appear poised to pay the price.

American policy also played a role in the ongoing takeover of Egypt by Islamists. Early in 2011, President Obama starkly discouraged Mubarak from unleashing his military and police to crush the demonstrators and then nudged Mubarak to step down. All the while, he hailed the birth of freedom in Tahrir Square (a freedom, incidentally, that has deteriorated, over the past few months, to include a series of sexual attacks). In recent months, the Obama administration similarly has sought to induce the interim military government to shepherd the electoral process to a "democratic" conclusion.

This was reminiscent of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who in 2006 arm-twisted Israel into allowing and facilitating general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The results were similar. The upshot of that earlier prodemocracy advocacy was the victory of the fundamentalist (and terroristic) Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood's offshoot in Palestine, and the defeat of the Fatah in the Palestinian territories, to both Israel's and the West's chagrin.

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).

Image: Maggie Osama