Green growth after Spring

What does the success of the Islamic parties mean for the future of Egypt?

Egyptian elections 521 (photo credit: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
Egyptian elections 521
(photo credit: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
Asilah Nasser was unsure where she was headed. The seamstress, a 63-year-old grandmother of eight, desperately wanted to vote but did not know where her registered polling place was located in the Cairo district of Sid Gabr. The instructions provided by the government and media were unclear and the numerous voting stations in the area left her utterly confused about how to fulfill her civic duty.
But as she walked down a dusty street, passing putrid plastic bags full of refuse, she saw a group of young people directing other older Egyptians to polling places. Muhammad al-Arishi, a handsome young man wearing pressed gray trousers and sporting a trim beard, quickly approached her. After asking her a few brief questions and glancing at a chart on his clipboard, he scribbled a few words on a piece of paper and saw nasser off. On one side of her sheet was her designated polling place. The other side extolled the virtues of the Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In nine of Egypt’s 27 provinces, people headed to the polls in late November in the country’s first free elections. The event marked the coming out of Islamist parties, long banned under President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in February as part of the Arab Spring challenging the region’s longstanding dictatorships. And while many Egyptians were overjoyed to participate in the democratic process, some feared the vote would decrease their freedoms rather than increase them.
On the other side of town in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki, Ahmad Farli and his friends were waiting for their doorman to clean their crisp blue Volkswagen Passat. They had not caught the election fervor sweeping the capital and were more interested in trading iPhone shortcuts with a foreigner than in explaining their political preferences.
“These elections will not be good for Egypt,” 26-year-old Farli lamented. “These Islamist groups will force us to give up all the progress we have made and turn us into another Saudi Arabia.” His friend Sharif Hazem concurred. “They don’t want us to have movie theaters. They don’t allow us to talk to women. Is this the Egypt we fought for during the revolution?”
Throughout the wealthier areas of Cairo, the young men’s fears resonate. But in poorer districts where residents have never enjoyed the economic fruits of Egypt’s secularism, people talk about a return to traditional values and brush off worries that an Islamist takeover will affect their lives.
Muhammad Mahmoudi repairs shoes in a small stall on the outskirts of Mohandessin. He stitches leather and affixes soles from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., taking breaks only to pray and eat.
A pious man, Mahmoudi nevertheless says he does not view himself as a zealot and does not seek to impose his religious views on others. “It was not right what Mubarak did to the Islamists,” Mahmoudi, 56, explains as his shoe-stitching machine clacks.
“He persecuted them. He imprisoned them. He denied their right to participate in politics. And why? Because they wanted Egypt to be a state with Islamic values? Is not Egypt a state of Muslims?”
At his mosque, others share the same view. “We are not scared of other Muslims. If the Brotherhood wins the election they will make Egypt a better state,” says Salah ad-Din Ahmadi. “We are proud of how the Brotherhood stood up to Mubarak for injustices in society.”
Better organized and more disciplined than their secular counterparts, Muslim parties swept up early election tallies. In the first round of these elections, some 70 percent of Egyptians voted for parties belonging to the Islamist Bloc. Some 47 percent voted for the Freedom and Justice Party. About 25 to 30 percent voted for the four Salafist parties: Al-Nour, Asala, Salafist Current, and the Construction and Development Party, which is the political wing of terrorist group Gemaa Islamiya, or the Islamist Group.
Together, the two blocs dominated the vote and will control the next parliament that will be tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution.
The Salafists are Islam’s most conservative Muslims. Much like the Jewish world’s Haredi community, they shun most of the modern world’s progress in favor of leading isolated, insular lives. They frown on the playing of music. They refuse to speak to women to whom they are not related. They scorn non-Muslims. They seek to return the Islamic world to its earliest generations by emulating the conduct of the Prophet Muhammad in ignoring the 1,300 years of progress that separate them from the founder of the Islamic religion. They even shape their beards in a certain way – with little or no mustache – because they believe this most closely emulates the prophet and his companions.
Though Salafists have much in common with the Wahhabis who preponderate in Saudi Arabia, there are some differences between the two groups. Wahhabi clerics profess allegiance to the Saudi government, which appoints them to official state positions. In contrast, Salafis do not profess loyalty to any state. Salafists take their name from al-Salaf al-Salah, or the pious ancestors. The term Wahhabi, which its adherents find derogatory, comes from the name of the 18th-century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who sought to return Islam to its early roots.
Though many expected the Muslim Brotherhood to win the elections, few believed the Salafists would fare as well as they did. Their strict creed demands that followers segregate themselves from society because of the inherent temptations it holds to make them deviate from their austere lifestyles.Salafistsʼ lack of a political past left them a largely unknown commodity. But their emphasis on religion resonated with Egypt’s conservative population.
But it is neither the Islamists’ defiance of the former regime nor their religious agenda that have made them so successful. Instead it is their ability to mobilize their supporters and dispatch them to urge others to vote that has propelled them to their heights. “The Islamist myth always speaks about how strong they are, about their persuasive ideology,” explains a Cairo political science professor. “But people overlook their strengths – their get-out-the-vote drives and their decades of opposing Mubarak. People respect the one and are moved to vote for them because of the other. That is the secret of their success.”
The day before the November 28 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters were buzzing. Activists were overseeing the distribution of election posters and drawing up lists of polling sites. Young teenagers were deftly maneuvering the crowded and cramped hallways shuttling coffee and tea to campaign workers. “It is simply not true that Egyptians will vote for us because we resisted Mubarak,” notes a mid-level Brotherhood official. “People support us because they believe in our program. They want an Islamic Egypt. They want to be proud of their country. They want it to be strong again. And this is what the Brotherhood can do.”
In the slums of Imbaba, the call to prayer drowns out the incessant honking. Barefoot children scamper through garbage heaps as flies buzz around their faces. One of Cairo’s poorest areas, residents have little hope that any new government will improve their lot. The capital’s middle-class neighborhoods and posh glass-door stores are a distant dream. People here eke out the barest of livings.
Musa Sulayman is tending his makeshift fruit stand, polishing the oranges and balancing his bananas. “Elections will not allow me to buy a new stand,” he complains. “All the politicians are alike. That is why I am for the Salafists. They will bring us back to the true values of Islam.”
In a Salafist mosque near Musa’s fruit stand, a man who identifies himself only as Yusuf is hesitant to speak with a foreigner. Eventually, though, he relents.
“No longer will Egypt be the dumping grounds of the infidels,” he declares. “This is an Islamic state. We don’t want infidel women sunbathing in strings on our beaches and corrupting our men. It is time to return Egypt to its Islamic roots in sweeping away these vices.”
Gaining steam as his tirade progresses, his sonorous voice catches the attention of Seif Muhammad, who joins the conversation. “We only want to strengthen Islam,” Muhammad offers. “It is wrong to see us as wanting to fight to establish our program. If Egyptians don’t want us to make these changes, they won’t vote for us.”
Given the election results, Muhammad appears to be right.
It remains to be seen how vigilant the Islamists will be in seeking to implement elements of their agenda, such as their desire to ban alcohol and compel women to veil themselves. But one thing is clear – those in Washington and Jerusalem who for so long battered the Mubarak regime for its authoritarian tendencies and tolerance of anti-Israeli rhetoric now pine for the secular bulwark it represented and the regional stability it ensured.
It remains unclear what will happen now.
Some believe the Muslim Brotherhood can champion itself as the moderate Islamist alternative and present itself as a barrier to more extreme religious interpretations. But the organization has been largely silent on this issue.