There is a sense of despondency filtering through the rank and file of Egypt’s secular youth; the wired generation of rebellious young men and women who took to the streets early last year demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt regime. It was they who first made the call, through Facebook and Twitter, to take over Tahrir Square and galvanize an entire nation. It was they who endured the attacks of the regime’s henchmen and the deadly assaults of the Ministry of Interior’s security forces later on. They came from everywhere raising non-religious and apolitical slogans; they wanted freedom, justice and an end to three decades of tyranny.
Less than a year had passed during which the regime was overthrown and a slow, and often frustrating, transition to civilian life began. But today the key players have changed. The country is ruled by a supreme military council whose popularity has dipped, while Islamist parties have emerged as winners in the three rounds of lower house elections. This is not what Egypt’s secular youth were calling for almost a year ago. In fact the big question today is this: Is Egypt on its way to becoming a theocracy?
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) are claiming more than 35 percent of the votes; their political arm Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has come in first, followed closely by the Salafi Al Nour Party which took between 20 to 25 percent of the ballots — official results are yet to be announced. The country’s nationalist, secular and liberal parties have all underperformed.
What is more important is that the coming lower house, which is expected to convene later this month, will chart a new constitution and already there are fears that Islamists will push to amend primary articles that define the religious and political nature of the country. Leading MB officials have made repeated assurances that they will not ally themselves with the Salafists, but will most likely copy the Tunisian example of forging a coalition with moderate and leftist parties.
Fears of Egypt becoming a theocracy have been promoted by secular youth and some Egyptian intellectuals. Writing in Al Ahram weekly last week Ayman El Amir said: It would not be in the best interest of the Brotherhood’s party to exercise monopolistic, theocratic control over parliament. The place for theocracy is in the mosque or a religious seminary, not the houses of parliament, where compromise and horse-trading is the name of the game.
Even Al Nour party is trying to distance itself from radical views and recently one of its leaders underlined the importance of the country’s stock market in supporting the economy, while others have visited Coptic churches to congratulate fellow Egyptians on the occasion of Christmas.
In spite of such assurances the real check will take place when the lower house convenes and coalitions are formed. The biggest challenge will be to chart a new, all inclusive, constitution for the country. This will be the biggest litmus test of the real intentions of the MB.
In the meantime Egypt continues to face huge challenges and the new parliament will have to rise to its responsibilities in helping the transitional government overcome deteriorating economic and social conditions. Again all eyes will focus on the Islamists and how they perform in the legislature. Already the MB has assured the world that it will respect the country’s treaties and commitments under international law.
There are signs that the MB and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have come to an agreement over the way future transition will take place; satisfying both parties’ immediate goals and objectives. That transition will culminate with the election of a civilian president in June.
The optimists believe that the MB will honor its word and will strive to present itself as a moderate force that is open for business. They believe that the MB’s basic philosophy of gradual transformation of society through education, civil and charitable service will overcome any radical alternatives. According one of the movement’s spokesmen, the current MB’s strategy will concentrate on the reconstruction of Egypt, the promotion of progress and development and enhancing the country’s regional and international status.
But the pessimists remain doubtful. In their view the Islamists will be unable to make use of this opportunity to govern, the first since the movement was established more than 80 years ago. They believe that the group’s political thinking remains rooted in the 1920s and has not developed since.
It is ironic that the MB and its offshoots find themselves in the driver’s seat in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and may take over if elections are held in Jordan, Libya and Syria—all a result of the Arab Spring. The closest model of a successful moderate Islamist rule is in neighboring secular Turkey!
Egypt’s secular youth may have been forced out of the political landscape perhaps because Egypt remains a largely conservative society. But as the youth attempt to create their own political arm, a keen Egypt observer, veteran journalist Nabil Darwish, believes they still consider themselves as the true conscience of the Jan. 25 revolution; ready to intervene by taking over Tahrir Square again if the country veers off course.
By Osama Al Sharif