An Egyptian woman casts her vote in historic free parliamentary elections Nov 28, 2011 at a polling station in the Sayyida Zeinab district of the capital, Cairo. The first round of voting (1 of three) for the election, the first since the revolution in Egypt that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak earlier in the year, saw very high voter turnout and is hoped to be a positive step in the direction of a new democratic spirit for the country. (Photo by Scott Nelson)

Much attention has been given to the success of “Islamist parties” in Egypt’s recently completed parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FPJ) achieved overwhelming success garnering 45 percent of the vote, while the Salafist parties came away with a combined 25 percent of the vote. Together these victories give the “Islamists” an absolute majority of 70 percent of the 498 parliamentary seats. The Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood are not, however, natural allies. In fact, the Salafists threaten the Brotherhood’s seasoned social, and now political, organization by claiming the higher religious ground. While the Brotherhood would prefer to focus on economic, trade, and development policy issues, it will be forced, at some point, to address Salafist calls for the immediate applications of Sharia law, which would define national identity in terms of religion rather than citizenship.

While the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to ally with the Salafist parties, both will pursue changes in Egypt’s social policies, although with different degrees of alacrity and depth. For many Egyptians, the specter of Salafist conservatism elicits a sense of fear and panic.

Military Authoritarianism

As a result of this fear and panic, some welcome the military’s continued control over the political sphere. They view the military as a strong antidote to extremism, and are willing to sacrifice individual freedoms and government accountability for the predictable brutality of the regime. For these individuals, the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists poses a greater threat to their way of life and their future than military authoritarianism.

It would, however, be a mistake to think that Egyptians are faced with a choice between military rule and an Islamic state. An alternative, and best scenario, is for the country’s new parliament, which held its first session on January 23, 2012, to be given real political and legislative power, and for the military to be forced back into the barracks and out of the political sphere. In these circumstances, the Salafist parties would eventually be forced to reconcile their vision of an Islamic society with the practical constraints and demands of governing. As they are still an immature political movement, they will need to learn extremely quickly how to deliver improvements in people’s lives or risk losing their mandate in the next election in five years time.

Another alternative, though far worse, scenario would be if the military manages to maintain even partial political authority, and is exempted from civilian oversight. This would create a disempowered parliament and would allow the Salafists to blame the military for lack of progress on political and economic reform, and to also avoid pressure to produce tangible results. This alternative would essentially reproduce the Mubarak-era model, whose deleterious effects, including corruption and inequality, are very familiar to most Egyptians. In short, in such an environment, there would be no mechanisms for holding either the military or the legislature accountable.

Egypt’s new constitution will play a major role in determining the balance between military and legislative power. As such, it is no surprise that the military, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and secular parties have tussled fiercely over the timing of the constitution’s drafting, the composition of the future constitutional commission, and the question of who will appoint the commission’s members.

To diminish the military’s influence over the constitutional process, the Muslim Brotherhood is insisting that presidential elections be held before a constitution is written. Countering the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) resistance to this arrangement, the Muslim Brotherhood recently floated a proposal that would grant military leaders immunity from prosecution once out of office. It includes a caveat conditioning passage of the bill on approval from the families of demonstrators killed in the last year. While it is unlikely that these families will waive their right to seek justice for the deaths of their loved ones, the Brotherhood insists that without these assurances SCAF will not submit to a civilian government. The Brotherhood may be correct in this, as prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty in Hosni Mubarak’s trial has not escaped SCAF’s notice.

Salafist Conservatism

In addition to drawing support from their well-established grassroots network, Salafist candidates won support from voters who believed they would eschew corruption. In reality, however, the Salafists entered Egyptian electoral politics without subscribing to the rules of the game. For these religious extremists, democracy, defined as the rule of men rather than God, is a sin. While they complied with the electoral requirement to field a female candidate for each governorate, the Salafists do not support women or, for that matter, Coptic Christians running for president. It will be interesting to watch and see whether the Salafist parties and candidates will come to realize that, in entering and winning an election, they are no longer religious men, but political ones – although, they would argue that this distinction is irrelevant.

The illiberal vision of individual and minority rights espoused by the Salafists in particular, but also to a certain extent by the Muslim Brotherhood, is one that concerns some, though not all, Egyptians. The Brotherhood has been very careful, and I believe sincere, in saying that they will protect personal freedoms, but this should be understood as confined to the limits of Islamic law. FJP spokesman, Mahmoud Ghazlan said in an interview, “Personal freedom of belief, action, movement, association, opinion, and travel are all part of Islamic Law. Our goal is to apply Islamic Law, which itself guarantees public freedoms.”

As optimistic as Mr. Ghazlan’s vision for the reform of Egyptian society may be, the reality in Egyptian courtrooms is different. Women are frequently the losers in this equation as they can spend years in futile attempts to win a divorce, custody, or alimony suit. The Personal Status Laws, which govern family matters like marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance are the precise issues where the battle for religious credibility between the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood will play out. It is yet to be seen how far to the “right” (to use an American political term), the Brotherhood will have to move on social and cultural issues in order to maintain its religious credibility.

Conclusion

There is no question that the uncertainty, violence, grief, and economic disruption of the last year have taken a toll on Egyptians. In the darkest hours, it is not surprising that some will want a return to the predictability of military rule, as this is the devil Egypt knows. Exempting the military from civilian oversight would, however, be a worse outcome for Egypt than the still opaque result of inside-out, top-to-bottom upheaval. While it is far from certain that a democratic system, which holds representatives accountable for their performance and protects individual rights, is on the horizon, all evidence points to the fact that there is a sizable part of the population that is willing to risk everything to achieve it.

For, in Egypt, it is the devil you know that you have to fear.

*Thalia Beaty is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.