The good news that Egypt has finally had free elections was for many people overshadowed by the preliminary results of the first round of voting. While the face of the “Arab Spring” had been young and modern, the elections are currently being led by overtly Islamicist parties with a history of fundamentalism and extremism.
The largest party, the PLJ, defines itself as moderate Islamist and won 36.6% of the vote so far. The El-Nour fundamentalist party got 24.3%, while the liberal Egyptian block gained 13.4% and the Nationalist party 7%. What this means, however, is not as bad as the alarmists would claim. First, this is the first round of elections; there are a lot more votes to count before we know what the make up of parliament ultimately will be.
These elections were to the lower house, where 332 representatives are elected through party lists, while 166 are elected on a majoritarian system, which includes run off elections. The party list system is a multi member district system, with each district containing 4 to 12 seats. More rounds of voting will be held before we know the actual make up of the parliament, and what kind of ruling coalition will take over. Most likely it would not be the PLJ and the fundamentalist al-Nour because the former does not want to be painted with the extremist brush the latter inspires (they want to ban alcohol and take a Saudi like approach to the law).
In February the upper house (Shura Council) will be elected, with Presidential elections in March. The new Parliament is to choose a 100 member council to draft a new Constitution, but the Military Council now running Egypt will limit the power of the new parliament and claims it has the authority to name 80 of the 100 members to the constitution council. Meanwhile, youth protests continue and any new government (including the military council) knows that if protests could overthrow Mubarak, they can overthrow a new government that tries anything radical. Those who want to write Egypt off over incomplete early results are over-reacting.
The Arab spring – probably the most important event of 2011, though part of a series of transitions going on globally – was all but inevitable. Like most historical shifts from the reformation to the fall of Communism, it could have happened at a different time or in a different way, but the mix of globalization and demography — half of the Arab world is under age 22 — meant that the old order could not survive. The fact that it rose in a completely unexpected manner in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his humiliation by the Tunisian bureaucracy shows something was boiling under the surface. The speed at which it spread across the Arab world shows the region had become a powder keg ready to explode
Yet the transition from being part of the most repressive part of the planet towards some kind of democratic future is not easy. We in the west sometimes romanticize democracy as some kind of natural form of government that all should aspire to. Yet democratic political cultures are hard to construct and maintain. Until they really gain acceptance in the broad public, they easily can be undermined. The difficulties across the Arab world are immense.
In Egypt one can imagine a scenario where the Islamic extremists try to take full power. That would likely lead to a war of sorts between the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood and other such groups, with the military winning. Such a result would lead to a kind of militarized democracy, much like Turkey experienced in its early years.
Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and realize that they have to walk a fine line between pushing for their agenda and not angering the military or protesters. They are just as likely to ally with a liberal party and work for a unified Egyptian voice. That could ultimately isolate the extremists and allow the development of an open, moderate form of political Islam alongside secular parties. That would be the best result, as ultimately political Islam should be part of the future, not an enemy of change.
Moreover, while one can point to a lot of extremism within the Islamic parties in Egypt, there is also diversity and considerable moderate and even modern ideals. The battle within political Islam for the Arab mind and soul is intense. They can’t ignore the factors of globalization and demographics, nor can they simply grab control of the military. The military sees itself like the old Turkish military after Attaturk, a guarantor of Egyptian stability and a protection against extremism. Egyptian military officials have close ties with Israel, and are no doubt working to assure the Israelis that they have the situation under control.
A best case scenario is the Egyptian military brokering deals between various interest groups and winning over support from protesters who start to realize that idealism alone does not bring freedom and prosperity. Political Islam can define itself by rejecting anti-Western activism, accepting the legitimacy of Israel (even while demanding a Palestinian state) and rejecting the extremes of al qaeda and al-Nour. This would play itself out over years, with parliaments and even the President gaining more control and authority slowly, based on a new Constitution that would limit what the government can do.
So is Arab spring slipping to Arab winter? No, at least not yet. We should be applauding Egypt’s first free election and recognizing that the task they are undertaking is exceedingly difficult. Most important, we should not write off political Islam as an enemy or a threat. That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead we need to quietly offer support where we can, help if asked, and recognize that this is an Egyptian and Arab journey — their reality to make, not ours. And, though naive optimism for a sudden rise of democracy is misplaced, so is a similarly naive pessimism that the region will collapse into some kind of extremist Islamic state ready to battle the West.
It is good that they’ve begun this journey, and ultimately history suggests that those who go against the course of history the way the Islamic extremists do tend to lose. The Egyptians are trying to do within a generation what it took the west centuries to do — with a lot of violence and horrors along the way. The start of this journey has been delayed too long; now thanks to young people willing to risk their lives for freedom, Egyptians have a chance for a better future.