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EGYPT: Islamist Parliament Inevitable ‘But Not Worrying’

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Mantoe Phakathi

CAIRO, Jan 2 2012 (IPS) - Following another Islamist landslide in the second round of legislative polling, Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament will likely see Islamist parties – especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – calling the shots. While high-profile secular figures warn of looming “theocracy”, many local analysts believe an Islamist-led parliament won’t make any radical legislative changes.

Friday prayers at a recent Tahrir Square demonstration. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

Friday prayers at a recent Tahrir Square demonstration. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

“Even though Islamist parties have secured a wide parliamentary majority, I doubt they’ll pass any laws that would deeply impact contemporary Egyptian society,” Mohamed Abo Kraisha, political analyst and managing editor of state daily Al-Gomhouriya told IPS.

The first round of voting in late November saw an Islamist landslide, with the Brotherhood’s FJP securing 38 percent of the vote. The ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, meanwhile, came in second, picking up a surprising 24 percent.

A second round voting on Dec. 14 and 15 brought similar results, with the FJP and Nour Party winning an estimated 36 and 29 percent of the vote respectively. As it now stands, the two parties together are set to easily capture more than two-thirds of parliament, ensuring their dominance over Egypt’s future legislative environment.

Secular parties (including liberal, leftist and nationalist parties) were savaged in both rounds. A third and final round of voting will be held on Jan. 3 and 4, with most expecting similar results.

The sweeping Islamist electoral victory has led to much gnashing of teeth among prominent secularist figures. The most commonly voiced fears are that an Islamist parliament will ram through legislation adversely affecting Egypt’s lucrative beach-tourism sector; the local banking industry (which relies on charging interest, proscribed in Islam); personal freedoms, especially women’s rights; and the citizen’s right to purchase and consume alcohol.

“They’re going to make us all wear the hijab,” said a 30-year-old female Egyptian journalist. “It’s going to be just like Afghanistan.”

Shortly before the elections, Coptic-Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, founder of the liberal Free Egyptians party, declared in a televised interview that Egypt risked trading the dictatorship of ousted president Hosni Mubarak for a “new, religious dictatorship” in the event of an Islamist electoral sweep.

But many believe such fears are vastly overblown. They believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, and by extension the FJP, is much too politically savvy to enact any drastic changes, especially at such a critical juncture in the country’s – and region’s – history.

“I doubt an FJP-led parliament will pass legislation radically impacting tourism, banking or personal freedoms,” said Abdel Ghani Hindi, coordinator of the Popular Committee for the Independence of Al- Azhar and leading member of the Union of Young Revolutionaries (which consists of several revolutionary youth movements established in the wake of Egypt’s January revolution).

“They’re too smart for this; they don’t want to lose public confidence now by making any sweeping changes – at least for the time being,” Hindi told IPS. “Whatever changes they decide to impose will be made very, very gradually.”

Abo Kraisha agreed, pointing to the Brotherhood’s long political history and reputation for pragmatism. Although the group was formally outlawed by the state from the 1950s until Egypt’s January revolution, it never ceased being politically active while providing free public services that bolstered its grassroots popularity.

“The Brotherhood has been practising politics since its establishment in 1928, and as such has more experience than anyone else on Egypt’s current political stage,” Abo Kraisha said. “It understands domestic and external political dynamics too well to pass radical legislation that might erode its broad public support and provide its enemies, both at home and abroad, with ammunition to use against it.”

“What’s more, the Islamists learned from earlier experiments with Islamic rule that they can’t enact radical change without severe repercussions,” he added. “In both Algeria and Afghanistan, Islamist parties won democratic elections and governed briefly only to soon be destroyed by covert and direct foreign intervention respectively.”

And in the next-door Gaza Strip, Abo Kraisha went on to note, a 2006 electoral sweep by Islamist Palestinian resistance movement Hamas (an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) was quickly met with an internationally sanctioned embargo that remains in place until today.

But while the Muslim Brotherhood may have earned a reputation for pragmatism, it is the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party that most secular critics fear will push for far-reaching legislative changes.

“Unlike the Brotherhood, the Salafists have issued contradictory statements on several contentious issues on which they don’t appear to have a single, clear position,” said Hindi. “Some Salafist leaders say they won’t push for major changes, while others say all of these issues require drastic change.”

This lack of consistency, Hindi noted, “continues to worry their critics.”

Abo Kraisha, however, believes that Salafist parties, led by the Nour Party, simply won’t have the parliamentary muscle to enact any legislation not endorsed by the more pragmatic Brotherhood.

“I doubt the Salafists will be able to force legislation on the rest of parliament,” he said. “They may have strong opinions on certain issues, but the FJP – which will command a lot more seats in the assembly – will serve as a moderating influence.”

The Brotherhood, in the meantime, has hastened to reassure the Egyptian public, and its many detractors abroad, that its and its party’s overriding objective in the coming period will be to solve the serious economic and security problems currently affecting the country – not on red-button issues such as alcohol and women’s apparel, on which the group’s opponents tend to put undue emphasis.

“The party has a programme to activate all sectors of the national economy, which is in very bad shape after 30 years of autocratic rule,” leading FJP member Hamdi Gazar told IPS. “This includes the tourism sector, of course, which has traditionally represented one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners.”

“The party’s political programme, and the Brotherhood’s general principles, makes it clear that our beliefs can never be forced on anyone against their will,” he added. “The party will not alter the banking system or force women to wear the hijab, while Egypt’s Christians will be guaranteed all their rights.”

He went on to point out that the first Coptic-Christian candidate to win at the polls had run on the ticket of the FJP’s Democratic Alliance electoral coalition.

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