By David Faris
It didn’t take long for the admirers of authoritarianism to reject the Arab Spring and to yearn for the simpler days when Arab leadership was passed tidily from father to son. After the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, Western pundits have taken to referring to the results as an “Islamist onslaught” and attacking President Obama for “losing Egypt.” Panic from the West is wafting over Egypt like nuclear fallout.
The thing that the poor Egyptians have done to earn the scorn of the lunchtime-lecture crowd in Washington is to actually go to the polls and vote for people that were not pre-approved by the West. As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party capitalized on its decision to spend the past year organizing for the elections rather than occupying Tahrir Square with the activists, garnering a plurality of the vote in the first round, albeit somewhat larger than the 30 percent predicted by most experts.
Adding greatly to the atmosphere of panic in Tel Aviv and Washington, the even more conservative Nour Party captured upwards of 25 percent of the vote in the first round. This has people lumping together the Brotherhood and Nour votes and claiming that “the Islamists” have won an overwhelming majority, even though it is not yet clear that these two groups will form a coalition once in parliament.
What is curious about all this hysteria is that we have known from the very first day of the Arab Spring that the likely victors in real elections across the region would be Islamist parties. It was after all, often rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood, along with the group’s leadership, that did much of the prison time and who were usually on the receiving end of the electroshock wires in Egypt’s torture gulag. The Brotherhood for years has also provided the only credible social alternatives to the services of the overwhelmed and corrupt Egyptian state.
Egyptian voters have been driven into the arms of the Freedom and Justice Party not by fanaticism but rather by the need for an alternative to the Mubarak-era crony capitalism which saw the regime invest untold billions in preposterous desert development schemes and insider privatizations while neglecting the real needs of its citizens. Voters want clean governance, not necessarily sharia.
Furthermore, the very dire economic challenges likely to be faced by the incoming leadership may reduce the enthusiasm for parties like the Nour — which has no coherent economic platform and is opposed to common policies like interest-based loans. If, on the other hand, the FJP chooses to ally with the liberal bloc, and they prove adept at governance, they will be rightly rewarded with another term. In either case, Egyptians should be given a chance to sort out their politics for themselves before paranoiacs from the Beltway start pronouncing the Arab Spring a failure.
Liberal groups and the Brotherhood in fact share a broad interest in gradually chipping away at the extra-constitutional privileges of the military — privileges that Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and others have been careless enough in recent days to double-down on. In fact it is clearly the military that has lost all sense of its place in Egyptian politics, and vastly overestimated its mandate. This is why Brotherhood supporters and liberal protestors once again shared Tahrir Square, albeit briefly, on November 18th to demand that the military not be allowed to reserve powers for itself that are beyond the reach of courts and parliament.
While these groups may not see their interests aligning in quite this way, it is nevertheless true that the greatest threat to Egyptian democracy is not the application of regressive social policies, or an alteration in the Egyptian-Israeli status quo, but rather the military continuing to wield unaccountable economic and repressive power as it has done for nearly 60 years. It is that kind of economic, social, judicial and political opacity that has proved to be so ruinous for Egypt’s economic and political development and which will forever prevent the emergence of an honest and legitimate pact between Islamists and secularists. That pact will of course represent less than each side hoped for but much more than can be achieved outside of electoral politics.
Instead of wringing their hands about “the Islamists,” observers should step back from these struggles and reflect on how much has been achieved. A year ago the regime orchestrated yet another artificial super-majority in parliament for the ruling National Democratic Party (which as we used to joke was neither national, democratic nor a party) while elites were preparing to pass the presidency to Mubarak’s clueless son Gamal. Free elections seemed like a distant and unlikely dream.
Today the NDP headquarters off Tahrir Square is a deservedly charred ruin, and its leftover candidates did worse than expected in the first round. In other words, Egypt’s voters have comprehensively rejected authoritarianism in ways that actually exceeded the predictions of the experts. The first round of the elections, while not without irregularities, was by all accounts the freest and cleanest in Egypt’s history. This should be cause for celebration, not despair.
We like to forget the tumult that followed other major democratic revolutions in the past century. In 1988, a holdover from South Korea’s military regime won the country’s first democratic elections. Across Eastern Europe after 1989, real elections sometimes brought communist parties back to power, much to the chagrin of Western observers. Those parties failed to provide solutions to the challenges of post-communism, and in the long run democracy survived. It may yet do so in Egypt as well if given the chance.
Even the socially illiberal forces that appear poised to win the Egyptian elections remain publicly committed to the broad contours of representative democracy, including the peaceful alternation of power and the legitimacy of elections. Rumors that the Brotherhood is meeting privately with American interlocutors to ensure the sanctity of the Camp David accords are a harbinger of things to come — once in power the FJP will be unable to pursue its most radical policies, hemmed in on one side by the international community, and on the other by the military.
We should also remember that these elections are far from over, and that the Egyptian presidency — the more powerful institution — will be up for grabs in June. The strong early showings by the FJP and the Nour are thus only the beginning, rather than the end, of the struggle for democracy in Egypt. While most observers expect both parties to do even better in upcoming rounds, we should not discount the possibility that these expectations are wrong.
The real test of the new Egyptian political system is not whether the Brotherhood and its allies will turn despotic, but whether the military is willing to accept the election results and forge an acceptable constitutional consensus between the Islamists and their opponents. The alternative is the dreaded Algeria scenario — after Algeria’s ruling junta annulled the 1991 elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front, the country was plunged into a decade-long civil war from which it has yet to recover. So far cooler heads have prevailed to prevent this kind of disaster.
If Egypt’s liberals (and leftists) want to inherit the revolution they helped author, they will have to convince Egyptians that they have better answers to the country’s many problems. And the US must encourage the Egyptian military not to destroy this fragile new democracy before its leaders have even had the chance to take office or pass a single piece of legislation. Other than a return to the despotic violence of the Mubarak era, there is no feasible alternative.
David Faris is an American political commentator and holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania for which he did extensive research in Cairo. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago.