How Islam Will Defeat Secularism in Egypt's Election

What role will Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood play in Egypt’s November election? 

Commentators in the West have spilled a great deal of ink over their desire to see someone other than the Muslim Brotherhood succeed in Egypt’s legislative elections come November. 

A number of members of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have also indicated their desire for a secular government. As one general put it, “we want a model like Turkey, but we won’t force it,” adding that “Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn’t think democratically.” One anxiously wonders what will happen in the event that the Brotherhood wins a majority or plurality of the vote and the Supreme Council decides it doesn’t like the results. 

The Supreme Council’s desire to tie the Brotherhood’s hands has, very recently, manifested itself in a largely unnoticed law introduced by the president of the elections supreme commission, Councilor Abdel Moaz Ibrahim. He has forbidden the use of religious slogans in the election process, suggesting that he will require the High Court of Justice to ban any candidate who uses such slogans. The foundation of the election process, he claims, is the “citizen” only and not religion.           

Meanwhile, Egyptians are dead set on making Islam a central tenet of the new governing order. On Friday, Salafists and Islamists gathered in Qena, chanting pro-Islam slogans in a mass protest. Tens of thousands more gathered in Cairo and Alexandria with demands including the preservation of the country’s “Arab and Islamic identity.” In the largest protest in Tahrir square in three weeks one poster read, “We will not accept an alternative to the laws of our God.”

The polls tell a similar story. In April 2011, Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that about 60% of those surveyed said “laws should strictly follow the teachings” of the Koran. Still, the numbers can be somewhat baffling and difficult to interpret. While 75% of Egyptians surveyed had a favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, only 17% said they should lead the next government. 

A separate poll by Newsweek/Daily Beast conducted in June 2011 showed that the Freedom and Justice party (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood) scored a plurality of support (17%) and the second-highest party was al-Wafd at 11%). The same poll concluded that over a third of Egyptians think a Muslim Brotherhood majority would be a bad thing, 27% said it would be good, and 38% weren’t sure. To be sure, these are mixed results and a great deal could change between now and November.

Still, my assessment is that the ongoing attempts by commentators in the West and Egyptian generals and lawmakers to suppress the Brotherhood – and more broadly the role of religion – in the upcoming election will almost certainly backfire. Egyptians will identify the forces of secularism with the twin pillars of evil – the United States and the old regime. The result will be that Muslim Egyptians feel greater urgency to organize, vote, and safeguard what is sacred to them: Islam.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Abd El-fatah

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Zachary Foster

I am a product manager at academia.edu while completing my ph.d in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. I write about Palestine, the Middle East and scholarly publishing, and speak Hebrew, Arabic Turkish and Italian.

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