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Religion wins

by Ronald Meinardus


Members of parliament for the Freedeom and Justice Party during the newly elected lower house’s first session

Members of parliament for the Freedeom and Justice Party during the newly elected lower house’s first session

Egypt’s lower-house elections ended in mid-January. The result was a faith-based landslide that will leave its marks on the country’s yet-to-be-drafted constitution. What role the military will play in the future remains to be seen. By Ronald Meinardus

These days, Egyptians are facing an election marathon. The political parties and their candidates have just taken down the hoardings for the lower-house campaign, and are beginning to prepare to run for the upper house. The most important votes, however, have been cast: the newly elected parliament will choose the committee that will draft the new constitution.

The election results were published in mid-January, and they clearly set the course for faith-based policymaking. All observers had expected the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to do well. The FJP won 47 % of the seats. It is a stunning surprise, however, that the Salafi alliance’s Nour became the second strongest party with about a quarter of the lower-house mandates. “Nour” means “Light”.

Unlike the FJP, which must be considered moderate in the Egyptian context, the Salafis are hardline Islamists. They want the Quran to rule not only public life, but the citizens’ private sphere as well. Though Nour’s strong showing irritates the Muslim Brothers, it may yet prove a blessing to them because it allows them to emphasise their moderate stance in contrast to the radicals.

It seems ironic that the “heroes of Tahrir Square” hardly played a role in the elections. After street protests and extended calls to boycott the elections, a group of activists finally decided to run for parliament. In the end, they only won two per cent of the seats. Egypt’s more established secular forces – the Communists, Socialists, Nationalists and Liberals – similarly failed to fulfil their hopes. Combined, they expected to control one third of the seats, which would have given them veto power in confrontation with the Islamists. However, only 20 % of the members of the lower house belong to their parties.

“Liberals made the mistake of being the anti-Islamist choice,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “If they want to become a mass party, they have to learn to speak the language of religion.”

Such language was used to great success by the faith-based parties. Early on, they managed to make religion a core ­issue of public discourse, thus reaching out to the masses, to whom Islam matters a lot. Surveys have shown that some 90 % of Egyptians say that policymaking should be based on the Sharia. Both in financial and strategic terms, the faith-based parties are much stronger than their adversaries.

The newly elected legislators will now choose the 100-member committee that will draft the new constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been running the country since last February, wants it to be approved in a national referendum, after which presidential elections are scheduled for June. By 1 July, the military wants a president with demo­cratic legitimacy to take over.

It remains to be seen, however, what role the military will really play in the future. This is another important issue that will be resolved soon. It is unlikely that the military will withdraw to the barracks without getting some kind of guarantee for its vast privileges.

The Muslim Brothers’ stance towards the military has recently been quite accommodating. Some people blame them of a secret deal with the generals. That a leading Muslim Brother recently proposed immunity for the military made such rumours seem even more credible.

Egypt’s revolution is one year old. The country has changed beyond recognition. However, the dreams the revolutionaries dreamt 12 months ago have not come true. Egyptians had the choice – and they still do.