The headline “Islamists win 70% of Egyptian Parliament list seats” was ubiquitous, even though we already knew that result was brewing since November and throughout the elections’ preliminary vote counts. Accompanying the historic headline was a significant frenzy of anger and despair. Many chimed in: local liberals, international news reports and punditry, and even non-Egyptians across social media platforms — all opining in one way or another that Egypt was surely “following the path of Afghanistan.” The targets of their anger were both the Egyptians themselves and the conservative parties they voted for.
There are indeed reasons for alarm, other than the oft-cited harrowingly low female representation in parliament. This first parliament in a country experiencing a youth-and-liberal-led revolution is now dominated by aging politicians from the conservative side of the political spectrum. And most of the constituting political parties of that spectrum didn’t really even exist one year ago, nor have they formulated a complete vision of how they will blend their varying Islamist backgrounds with a necessary modernist and progressive vision. Their discourse leaves considerable room for a disconcerting and daunting ambiguity.
What’s more, observers are often left confused between the usually more balanced and comforting “official statements” by such political parties and forces, and the often more confrontational and conservative “unofficial and casual remarks” made elsewhere by members.
First, these same conservative forces and parties themselves have been undergoing a significant pro-liberalization ideological and internal reformation process, stimulated both by their recent skyrocketing to the forefront of Egyptian politics, internal pressures, as well reform efforts that began much earlier — in the case of the Brotherhood, from at least 2004. Both the Brotherhood and (to a significant extent) the Salafists have been making strong official efforts to modernize their views; they are engaging with the business community, artists and cultural figures, and local liberals (with the Brotherhood/FJP in particular providing continuous reassurances on economic management and fundamental liberties, and promises to stay away from Iran-and-Saudi-like socio-political policies), working on creating pragmatic solutions for real world problems in a way that does not betray their core principles and constituency, and opening a strong and (despite everything) increasingly transparent dialogue with local and international media and political entities, as well as with the Egyptian public in general. And you can easily spot the rigorous daily evolution of discourse and political sophistication. It definitely remains an imperfect effort with darker moments here and there, but so has been the entire political process after the revolution, and the effort remains a highly encouraging one nevertheless.
Second, when Egyptians voted for the Islamists, the overwhelming majority didn’t do so because they wanted their country to turn into Afghanistan, as some have put it. Not anything in Egypt is so simple anymore. Some voted Islamist (particularly for the Brotherhood) because they believed they were the only truly experienced and organized technocratic entity that could serve the country at this critical juncture. Some, because they believed politicians with strong personal religious credentials would hopefully be less vulnerable to succumbing to the rampant corruption that has been at the leading feature of Egyptian politics and economics for decades. Others, because they felt the Islamists “deserved a chance” after going through decades of regime-sponsored repression. And still others, because they “knew them personally” from their neighborhoods, as well as from their charity and community work from long before there were even elections to speak of. And also because the Islamists did the most and best electoral awareness and campaigning on the trail, even if the methods used weren’t always entirely acceptable. And, of course, yes, there were many who voted for them hoping for a political-ideological project that imbued or fused politics with religious values, though the visions of that project varied immensely from one voter to another–from the ultra conservative to the remarkably liberal.
Sure, the electoral success of the nascent Salafi groups came as a surprise, but every realist knew the Islamists would constitute the majority of parliament come election day. It’s thus important to remember that the results themselves were not entirely a reflection of a singular ideological preference among the electorate, but often a result of a true lack of any trustworthy alternative in many of the districts, especially with the liberals, socialists and nationalists not only failing to sufficiently articulate and present a popular ideology, but also failing to be strongly present on the ground outside of urban areas (mind you, there was little time to do so), and to develop their candidates’ appeal in an electoral process often decided by how people feel about the candidate, not the candidate’s politics.
Egypt is moving forward, and everyone knew that Islamists were going to politically dominate these elections, even deservingly so. It is time for the critics to stop haranguing Egyptians for voting the way they did, realize that their vote was only a logical and expected result of all conditions considered, and instead focus on the core of what the democratic process is all about: how the wider array of Egyptian political parties can learn to positively and constructively better compete for the votes and betterment of the lives of Egyptians.
Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian writer. He’s been published in Ahram Online, CFR Blog, The Atlantic, Hurriyet Daily News, Al Masry Al Youm English, Al Dostour and others. He writes on his blog “An Arab Citizen,” and can be followed on twitter at @bassem_sabry