The Egyptian elections: Why an Islamic sweep?
By Joyce Chediac
Dec 10, 2011
Egypt’s first significant election in 50 years showed a sweep for the Islamists. Why is this?
While the military government now says the turnout at the polls was 52 percent, lower than its earlier figure of 70 percent, many voters waited in line for hours to participate in the first of three elections for parliament. They saw the vote as a right won by the revolutionary movement.
Preliminary tallies gave the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party 40 percent of the vote and the Salafist Al Nour party 25 percent.
The Brotherhood is viewed as a moderate group, sometimes compared to the governing Islamic party of Turkey, which administers a nonreligious state. The Salafists are Islamic conservatives who seek separation of the sexes in most public places. They may seek to regulate the content of culture, education and other areas of society. While a large Brotherhood win was expected, the strong showing by Salafists was not.
What explains the Islamist win?
The timing of the elections favored the Muslim Brotherhood. In February, Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin predicted, “If the elections are immediate, many people will vote for the Muslims because they are organized, they have the media … but if you allow for a year of real freedom, the left and the youth can then organize themselves.”
Certainly the Muslim Brotherhood did everything it could to keep the elections immediate. Right before the elections the Brotherhood broke with the mass movement in the streets that was demanding an immediate end to military rule. It worked out a deal with the generals to support military rule until June on two conditions: that the army let the November elections proceed as planned and that it move up the presidential vote to June 2012 from 2013.
Rules for getting on the ballot made it prohibitively expensive for working-class groups and most left parties. Ballot status required parties to pull together a list of the names and addresses of 5,000 members, then purchase full-page ads in Egypt’s two main newspapers to publish the names.
Tunisians, Palestinians voted Islamic also
But this doesn’t explain why in Tunisia the Islamist Ennahda Party won a plurality of 37 percent of the national legislature in October. Tunisia has been considered one of the most secular of the Arab countries. This was the first election since a mass movement in January brought down the repressive rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Nor does it address why Palestinians in the Occupied Territories voted hands down for Hamas in their last elections. In the 2005 municipality election, Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, got 73 percent. Voters in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council contest gave Hamas 74 seats as opposed to Fatah’s 45.
These votes speak to how very discredited the old regimes are, how they are associated with corruption at home and collaboration with the U.S. and Israel abroad, and how, in the eyes of many Arabs, an entirely different political current should get a chance to rule.
‘Secular’ equated to foreign intervention
All things Islam have been vilified in the most ignorant and racist way in the U.S. But this is not at all the case in the Middle East. In fact, just the opposite is true.
In Egypt today, even the word “secular” is tainted with the connotation of foreign intervention. Egyptians who favor separation of mosque and state are not even using this word. Instead, they are calling for a “civil” government or a government of “civilians.” For example, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions calls for building a “national democratic civil state.”
Under a secular government, President Hosni Mubarak stole $60 billion from the people of Egypt. His regime signed an agreement with Israel selling them natural gas at rates lower than those paid by Egyptians. This secular government sold off the state-controlled economy to multinational corporations, pleasing Wall Street banks but impoverishing the Egyptian people. And when the people exerted any rights, they were clubbed and jailed. This went on for 30 years.
The government in Tunisia and other long-standing Arab regimes is seen in the same way — corrupt and bowing to Israel and the U.S. And in the Occupied Territories, Fatah was seen as ruling through patronage and cronyism, as well as making many concessions to Israel.
Furthermore, the two countries in that region that have made significant economic gains for their populations, Iran and Turkey, have Islamist rulers.
Islamists seen as fighting Israel
Regaining the rights and territory of the Palestinian people is still a burning issue to Arab people. The current crop of leaders sat on their hands when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 and bombed Gaza in 2008-2009, disgusting their own populations. While giving lip service to the Palestinian cause, they really want to make a peace deal with Israel over the heads of their people.
Still spouting the old Arab nationalist slogan of “Arab unity” for public consumption, these regimes compete with each other to win the favor of the imperialists, to the shame of their populations. The last public vestige of this “unity” is the Arab League, whose members did not unite to sanction Israel for bombing Gaza, but who quickly acted together to sanction Libya and Syria and invite U.S.-NATO forces to bomb Libya.
Who has fought Israel? The Palestinian people under Hamas in Gaza fought back against the Israeli onslaught, preventing Israel from declaring a victory or imposing terms. Hezbollah, the national liberation movement in Lebanon — whose name means Party of God — is the only Arab force that has fought Israel and won. Twice this organization chased Israeli troops out of Lebanon — in 2000 and 2006.
Meanwhile, many Egyptians have observed the Islamists in their mosques and neighborhoods and see how they operate. They are a known entity. Many provide social services, food and medicine in poor areas where the Egyptian government does not. So, they have concluded, why not elect them to office and see what they will do.
Islamists are rooted in a religion and philosophy indigenous to the Middle East. Embracing them is also a reaction to the decades of Western colonialism’s theft of natural resources and repression of the people of the Middle East, either directly or through bankrupt puppet regimes. Many people feel that the West has little or nothing of value to offer them.
This is the level of consciousness revealed by the recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt.
What will the Islamists do?
Islamist groups, however, like their Christian counterparts, are not all the same. For example, Hezbollah, a national liberation movement under the Israeli gun, is very different than the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which fronts for Washington and opposes every progressive move in the Middle East. And groups change depending on the pressures put upon them.
How will the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists relate to imperialism, to Israel and to Egypt’s workers? These are key questions in a situation that remains fluid.
Just days after the election, there is already friction between the Brotherhood and the U.S.-armed Egyptian military. The military, which wants to keep power over parliament, is claiming the large vote as a mandate for its continued rule. The Brotherhood says the large vote shows the people favor civilian rule over the military.
At this time the Brotherhood is trying to distance itself from the very conservative Salafists and has said it will not coalesce with them.
How will this new government function? Will it guarantee the rights and safety of non-Muslim minorities, like the Coptic Christian community, long under heavy attack by right-wingers and the government?
Will it be pressured to open the Rafa border and end the blockade of Gaza? Or will it keep the Egyptian treaty with Israel, a lynchpin of Washington’s domination of the Middle East that was imposed by the Camp David Accords?
Will the multitudes come back into the streets and, if so, over what issues?
What will the left parties and the youth do and say to bring clarity and to win over the people? How will this impact Egyptian women?
The Egyptian election is just one arena in a profound mass struggle that continues to unfold.