Analysis: Islamists jump gun in Egypt election

Muslim Brotherhood assertion of 40 percent win is premature; "All parties can agree on dislike for Israel," expert says from Cairo.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters attend a rally 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Muslim Brotherhood supporters attend a rally 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
Official results from Egypt’s parliamentary election won’t start trickling in until Thursday, but the Muslim Brotherhood jumped the gun on Wednesday by announcing it expects to receive 40 percent of the vote.
With ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party banned and liberals in disarray, the announcement was telling in revealing the Islamist party as the only one sanguine enough over its election prospects to hazard a guess.
RELATED:Muslim Brotherhood says it leads Egypt's vote count
“There was no doubt the Brotherhood was going to dominate,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, by phone from Cairo.
“The Brotherhood knows how to get out the vote; no one does it better in Egypt ... In many parts of Egypt, people only saw the Brotherhood campaigning. The other parties didn’t have the manpower or volunteer base to cover the whole country,” he said.
Hamid, an American of Egyptian descent who is an expert on Islamist movements, said all told he expects Islamist forces to take around 60% of the vote: 40 to 45% for the Brotherhood, 10 to 15 for ultra-conservative Salafi parties and 5% for assorted other Islamist groups.
“People generally underestimate the Salafis. If you’re not a Salafi, it’s hard to understand why people would vote for them,” he said. “But the Salafis have the best organization after the Brotherhood, and that’s what’s going to make a difference in an election like this, where there are a lot of parties that are largely unknown.”
Egypt’s electoral process is exceedingly complex, and many voters say they feel overwhelmed by the number of parties and candidates to have emerged since Mubarak’s ouster nine months ago.
Each district receives two parliamentary seats, but one-third of seats are reserved for individual candidates while the rest are reserved for party lists.
Complicating things further, an obscure rule from the socialist policies of president Gamal Abdel Nasser holds that one of each district’s two seats must go to a “professional” and the other to a “worker or peasant.”
The Egyptian journalist Issandr El-Amrani, a contributor to the blog The Arabist, posted a photograph on Monday of the party ballot now in use across Egypt. The list of individual candidates includes no fewer than 122 parliamentary hopefuls, and while the party list appears more manageable – only 16 choices – listed first among them is Al-Nour, a party founded in January that has emerged as the largest Salafi movement in the post-Mubarak era.
“The Salafis have a strong core of voters, anywhere from two to five million. Salafis are doing well because they’re not political parties but religious movements, which have a built-in advantage in that they have a core following that is committed and disciplined,” Hamid said.
“Even if they win 10%, that’ll be big for them. They didn’t even exist in politics a year ago, and if they can be the second or third largest bloc in parliament that’s a success for them. Either way, they could potentially play the role of kingmaker.”
Liberals are all but down for the count, he said.
“Liberals aren’t going to do well – the question is just how badly they’ll do. But the bar is so low, they might actually exceed expectations. People have been talking about a liberal wipeout, so they could come out of this looking stronger than they have any right to. If the Egyptian Bloc wins 10 to 15%, that’ll be a success,” Hamid said.
The Bloc is a liberal-leftist alliance of three parties including the Free Egyptians Party of telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
“I don’t think liberals have a natural constituency in Egypt. ‘Liberalism’ has a negative connotation here. I’m not even sure what liberalism means in an Egyptian context – try even asking liberals and they’ll have trouble answering,” he said. “All ‘liberal’ means in Egypt is someone who’s not an Islamist. That might get you 10% – people who are afraid of the Ikhwan [Brotherhood] – but that’s not a positive, affirmative message that will win a lot of votes.”
Hamid said liberals need to learn to speak the language of the religion if they hope to cut into the Brotherhood’s support base: “All the polling that’s ever been done in Egypt suggests Egyptians are very religiously conservative, and they want Islam to play a larger role in public life. I don’t know how one gets around that.”
The country’s economic situation is dire, he said, but could present liberals with a welcome source of leverage.
Click for special JPost coverageClick for special JPost coverage
“I think the economic factor is key. If non-Islamists want to win, they have to focus on the economy and come up with solutions that are practical, and to make that case to Egyptians who are not economically literate,” Hamid said.
“Because the economic situation is so dire, the Brotherhood may fail to reach people’s expectations. Then people are going to look for an alternative – not because they don’t like the Brotherhood, but because it was unable to deliver.”
Israeli officials have expressed concern that an Egyptian parliament heavily populated by Islamists will cause already tenuous Egyptian-Israeli ties to fray.
Last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the revolutions roiling the Arab world were heading not towards progress and liberalism, but producing “an Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave.”
Hamid said it was misleading to lay the blame for anti-Israeli sentiment solely on Islamists.
“Egyptians don’t like Israel, so any government they elect is going to have tense relations with Israel; that’s just the way it is,” he said.
“The Brotherhood, though, has proven more than comfortable compromising its principles for political gain. If they need to compromise on Israel in order to get something out of it, they’ll do it,” he said.
“That said, the Brotherhood is never going to like Israel, and the relationship is not going to improve. I don’t think there’s a chance of an outright cancelation of the peace treaty, but I think there’s certainly a possibility of renegotiating certain aspects of it or finding ways to limit its impact or operability.
“In some ways the Brotherhood is more pragmatic on foreign policy than leftist or nationalist parties. Because the Brotherhood’s anti-Israel credentials are strong, it doesn’t have to overcompensate. What you see with non-Islamist parties is that because they’re sometimes accused of being Western- influenced, they have to go out of their way to demonstrate their anti-Israel bona fides,” Hamid said. “People tend to exaggerate how different Islamists are from non-Islamists on foreign policy. If there’s anything all parties agree on it’s dislike of Israel.”