The first round of voting for a new Egyptian parliament is finished and all indications suggest that the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), is the big winner.
The FJP won about 40 percent of the votes, the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis got about 25 percent and a left/liberal coalition called the Egyptian Bloc slightly less. The FJP victory and the poor performance of the left and liberals did not come as a surprise, the good result of the Salafis did. In December and January we will have two more rounds outside of the big cities and most observers expect the results of the FJP and the Salafis to improve in these more conservative rural areas.
Whatever the final outcome of the elections will be, it is perfectly clear that the key role in the new parliament will be for the FJP. I vividly remember my talks with members of the MB in 2005 and 2006 when I visited Egypt -- first as an election observer, later, together with my then colleague from the European Parliament Jan Marinus Wiersma, preparing for a book on the EU’s policies towards Bosnia, Turkey, Morocco and Egypt that was eventually published in 2007 in Dutch and translated into Turkish in 2009.
What struck us most in Egypt were the differences of opinion within the MB and the detailed knowledge some of them had on developments in Turkey in general and on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in particular. We spoke with older MB leaders who basically were not that much interested in politics and stuck to the traditional view that law should come from God and not man. But we also met with young MB members of parliament who acted in a very pragmatic way, trying to use their seats to improve the living conditions of their voters, not for preaching Islam. This new generation was very much aware of what the AK Party was trying to do in Turkey, and many of them expressed the desire to copy, one day, the AK Party experience in Egypt. These strong divisions within the MB on basic goals and means of the organization raised of course the question who would be in charge once the moment would come that they would be in a position to realize their ideas. That moment has arrived. What is the MB going to do after the elections?
Based on my impressions and experiences then and an analysis of the present situation, I think there are three main challenges facing the MB.
The first one is how they will deal with the army. The MB has a complicated and mixed history of accommodation and confrontation with the military. Although many MB leaders in the past ended up in jail, at crucial moments this year the army and the MB joined forces to stabilize the post-revolutionary chaos. Will this pattern of pragmatic or, as some liberals claim, opportunistic cooperation continue or is the FJP going to stick to its promise to push back the role of the army in nominating the next government and in drafting the new constitution? A second key question that the MB will have to answer is with whom they want to make an alliance in parliament. Will the FJP, which presents itself as a moderate Islamist party, side with the victorious orthodox Salafis or with the defeated liberals? Finally, is the MB willing to defend the rights of women and religious minorities in the new constitution? By doing so they might be able to convince many skeptics at home and abroad who doubt the sincerity of the MB in defending human rights and democracy.
These are formidable tests for a new party after 80 years of oppression, confronted with a society in rapid transition and an economy in ruins. They must sound familiar though to the AK Party leaders who came to power in 2002. Whether or not the MB could learn from the AK Party experience remains to be seen. Essam el-Erian, the leader of the FJP, has set his goals higher than simple imitating the Turkish model. In an interview with Reuters he stated: “I hope we can have a different model. We hope that when we build a modern democratic country in Egypt, this will be a good example, inspiring others to build democracy.” How else to react to these intentions then by saying inshallah?