Thursday, December 01, 2011

Onward, Egyptian Democracy

The first round of voting in Egypt's three-stage elections indicates that the new parliament will be dominated by Islamist parties. The areas that voted this week were more liberal than Egypt as a whole, and yet the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have upwards of 40% of the seats, or about what they were expected to do nationwide. More surprisingly, Salafis strongly overperformed expectations to win about 25% of the vote. As the New York Times reports:
"If the majority proves durable, the longer-term implications are hard to predict. The Brotherhood has pledged to respect basic individual freedoms while using the influence of the state to nudge the culture in a more traditional direction. But the Salafis often talk openly of laws mandating a shift to Islamic banking, restricting the sale of alcohol, providing special curriculums for boys and girls in public schools, and censoring the content of the arts and entertainment.

"Their leaders have sometimes proposed that a special council of religious scholars advise Parliament or the top courts on legislation’s compliance with Islamic law. Egyptian election laws required the Salafi parties to put at least one woman on their electoral roster for each district, but they put the women last on their lists to ensure they would not be elected, and some appear with pictures of flowers in place of their faces on campaign posters."

Egypt's liberals are despondent, and there is concern for the future of civil liberties in Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood decides to move in a more conservative direction to co-opt the salafis. My belief, however, is that the path forward is to establish a stable democratic system in which free elections become the norm. This means, in fact, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in its efforts to speed the transition to civilian rule. Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna himself cited elections as something to admire about Western civilization, as it allows people to hold their leaders accountable, force those leaders to take into account the popular will and the condition of the country as a whole instead of just themselves and their own patronage networks.

Although Western political commentators assert as a given that all Islamist commitments to democratic principles is deceptive window dressing and that their true agenda is "one person, one vote, one time," evidence for that is scanty. After the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini installed an "Islamic Republic" which still has lots of democratic features, and which even with its undemocratic elements happens to be what he stood for before the 1979 revolution. In Turkey and so far Tunisia, Islamist parties have maintained their democratic commitments. In Algeria and the Palestinian Territories, Islamist election victories were followed by chaos, but in both of those case the ruling powers acted undemocratically against the election results, cancelling them in Algeria and sharply curtailing their ability to do anything in the PNA. In other words, there's no real precedent for Islamists suddenly acting on a hidden agenda, and plenty for fear of Islamists leading to rash, undemocratic actions damaging to the polities involved.

Given this history, the liberal parties, who are losing badly because they are simply badly underdeveloped and without a long history of arguing their message in society, should consider their common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood and the prospects for forming a coalition with them rather than leave the salafis are their only willing partners. The MB, for its part, has expressed an openness to this, denied rumors they are tacitly allied with the salafis, and even advertised their willingness to put Christians in high-profile positions. The way forward for those disappointed today is not to become political insurgents in league with the SCAF, but to accepts the results of 2011 so as to make sure they have a chance to do better in future elections.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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