What does the future hold for Egypt’s Christians and secularists? Frida Ghitis, writing for CNN, explores the question by examining the ideologies of Egypt’s rising Islamist political parties.
By Frida Ghitis
1/10/2012 Egypt (CNN) – The final runoff of Egypt’s first free elections in recent memory has ended and the result is clear: Islamist parties have swept the popular vote.
Should the international community worry?
In every Arab country where popular uprisings have pushed dictators out of power, Islamist parties have become the most powerful political force. That has caused anxiety among progressive Arabs and a great deal of confusion in the West. After all, the uprisings that were optimistically labeled the “Arab Spring” were supposed to herald a blossoming of freedom, democracy and equality. Do Islamist parties believe in freedom, democracy and equality?
If you ask them, you will hear a symphony of reassurances and contradictions, punctuated by an occasionally jarring declaration, as when Egypt’s Salafi Nour Party proclaimed that “democracy is heresy.”
If there were a surprise in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, it was the strong showing of the ultraconservative Salafis, who would like to turn the social clock back by several centuries and return to the rules that governed Muslim lands in the days of the Prophet Muhammad, about 1300 years ago.
The Salafists have proposed banning women and Christians from holding office, ending alcohol sales and cutting off the hands of thieves. They call Christians and Jews “infidels.”
The other electoral surprise, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, is just how badly liberal groups — the ones who launched the uprisings and embrace the kind of democracy we would recognize in the West — fared at the polls.
The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood came on top in Egypt’s latest election, taking about 40% of the vote. The Salafis came in second with about 25%. This means that Islamist parties captured a whopping two-thirds of the vote. The winners will form Egypt’s first democratically-elected parliament, which will choose the people who write the country’s new constitution.
The Salafis’ extreme views have helped the Brotherhood look moderate, which is exactly the image they want to project to the West.
Leaders of parties affiliated with or inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who have won elections in Tunisia and even in Morocco, where King Mohamed VI allowed elections to prevent an uprising, say they support democratic principles. When speaking to the Western media, they have especially tried to send out a reassuring message. But occasionally they have slipped up.
In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is still trying to sort out where it stands on many issues. A case in point is the peace treaty with Israel. The group has said it has no intention of revoking the treaty. But a few days ago, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rashad Bayumi, told the newspaper Al Hayat that the Brotherhood would never recognize Israel, is not committed to the peace treaty and would take steps to change it.
At the moment, liberal Egyptian activists are more focused on how to wrest power from the military. But, assuming that battle succeeds, their attention will turn to what an Islamist government would mean. Both the Salafis and the Brotherhood acknowledge plans to impose Sharia, the traditional Islamic law. The difference is that Salafis want to do it immediately. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has learned patience during decades of operating underground, says it will bring it back gradually, over many years.
It wasn’t very long ago the Muslim Brotherhood declared it would not allow a Christian to become president. About 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, who have endured brutal attacks since the uprising that ended the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But the Muslim Brotherhood has been steadily toning down its rhetoric. Throughout the region, the long-time leaders of Islamist organizations, which had been banned by regimes often supported by the U.S. and its European allies, are emerging as powerful politicians trying to convince the rest of the world to trust them.