A Deeper Look At Egypt's "Islamist Takeover"

Islamists seize two-thirds of votes.”

Islamists set to sweep initial Egypt elections.”

These headlines, a sampling of those that appeared following the first round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, illustrate the Western fear of an “Islamist takeover” in Egypt. 

This fear is founded on the widespread perception that Egypt’s Islamist groups form a monolithic force. This perception is inaccurate and presumes collaboration on the part of disparate political groups purely on the basis of broadly shared religious beliefs. Given that these groups are poised to gain even more power in the coming weeks, it is critical to understand their divergent perspectives.

One 22-year-old student and Muslim Brotherhood supporter describes the election results as a “Victory for all Egyptians, including religious and non-religious … It is the will of the people, who came and voted for the candidates they trust to pursue the proper path.” Essam El-Arian, vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), wrote an op-ed in the Guardian on November 30 in which he declared that, in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, “The real – and only – victor is Egypt.”

Of course, FJP didn’t fare too poorly either, and captured 37% of the nearly 10 million ballots cast in the first round of voting. The success of FJP, and more broadly the Muslim Brotherhood, did not come as a surprise to many, as the Brotherhood has long been entrenched in Egyptian society politically, socially, and economically. The same can’t be said for Al-Nour, whose second place finish with 24% of the vote caught many analysts off-guard, and even prompted Egypt’s Al-Shorouk News to lead with the headline “Al-Nour, The Surprise At The Moment” the day after the election. Still, for some Salafi supporters, this result was not a surprise, but rather a disappointment.

“Many of my Islamist friends will be happy for what happened [in the elections] because they consider it to be a fair victory from God,” said one ardent Salafi supporter, “But I do not see it as fair play.” The 39-year-old engineer argued that, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been tacitly involved in Egyptian politics for decades, “The rest of the parties did not get the chance to establish themselves. To do that will take years and they will never be able to compete.”

Last week’s voting encompassed some of Egypt’s more liberal provinces, and as the elections in the coming weeks move to more conservative, rural areas, Al-Nour supporters are confident that the party will fare better in spite of the FJP’s better organization. “Votes come from mosques and relations and reputation,” said the 39-year-old engineer, adding that “in the second round I think Al-Nour will receive more votes.”

Though FJP and Al-Nour together account for over 60% of the ballots cast in the first round of voting, this does not imply an alliance in ideology or practice. Regardless, both parties are poised to remain major players in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future, and it is critical to understand their individual perspectives. Perhaps the 22-year-old student summed it up best when he said, “We are all Egyptians and we all believe in God. After that, we may have some differences of opinion on the future.”

Photo Credit: Chi Hoon Kim