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There Is No Unified Agenda For Egypt's Islamists

As Egypt’s complicated electoral process creeps forward, all eyes have been on Islamists. 

By preliminary counts, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is poised to gain about 40% of parliamentary seats, and support for the fundamentalist Nour Party hovers around 25%. There are growing concerns about a parliament with an Islamist majority, but while both groups share similar ideological leanings, in practice they have different priorities that may prevent a unified Islamic agenda and leave room for liberal and secular groups to have a voice.

The Nour Party is the political branch of the Salafi movement, inspired by the Wahhabi school of thought dominant in Saudi Arabia. They openly scorn democracy, claiming that it puts man’s law above God’s, but have formed a political party to ensure that sharia is the basis of the new constitution. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, they are a recent addition to Egypt’s political scene, and are led mostly by clerics. This makes many Egyptians, particularly the young activists at the heart of the revolution, wary of their potentially strong influence in political life.

The combined influence of the Nour Party and the Freedom and Justice Party will undoubtedly make Egypt more Islamic than many young activists would like. But a shared ideology will not stop Islamists from disagreeing on a number of practical issues. Although the two parties campaigned together in some areas to avoid splitting the Islamic vote, an electoral alliance between them collapsed over including Christians and women in their electoral lists. The Nour Party has kept its distance from the Brotherhood, one leader claiming that “they always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision.” The Muslim Brotherhood is similarly hesitant to join forces with the Salafists because their medieval interpretations of Islamic law could be a burden in addressing domestic issues.

Their differences lie in how to translate ideals to reality. According to Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, the Muslim Brotherhood has a much more pragmatic approach to politics and is likely to focus on establishing a strong parliamentary system, boosting the economy, and reforming state institutions, goals that are more in line with liberal groups than religious conservatives. Banning alcohol and regulating women’s dress are unlikely to be on their list of immediate priorities.

The Muslim Brotherhood may agree with these ideas in theory, but in other ways the Salafists are a liability. Despite their support from many rural areas of Egypt, their lack of political experience and unwillingness to compromise lead them to favor policies that will do little to solve Egypt’s immense economic problems. For example, they seek to phase out non-Islamic banking and ban alcohol and bare flesh on Egyptian beaches, but these actions would weigh heavily on Egypt’s struggling economy. The government has interest-bearing obligations that do not mature until after 2020, and tourism, including beaches, accounts for about 12% of the Egyptian economy.

The fact is that Islam is a religion and not a political system. How it is applied to politics will generate controversy and disagreement. Islamists can rely on ideology over practicality when shunned from politics but not when forced to truly confront complex economic and social issues. There are many unanswered questions about how Islamists will reconcile Islam and democracy and whether the Muslim Brotherhood will prove as moderate as it claims. But the disagreements between Islamist parties will potentially leave room for liberal and secular groups to play a role in the new government, preventing the one-party rule that occurred under Mubarak.

Democracy is by nature a messy experiment, and the best hope for Egypt is to follow in Tunisia’s footsteps and let all competing forces in society begin the long and grueling process of working out their differences. This is assuming, of course, that Egypt can overcome the significant and much more daunting task of forming a government that is truly representative of its people’s interests. The military has made some troubling attempts to cling to the power and privileges they enjoyed under Mubarak, which would be more detrimental to democracy than any one group vying for parliamentary seats.

Despite their differences, Egypt’s Islamists are likely to have far greater power in shaping the way forward than the less organized groups at the heart of the revolution. But they are unlikely to emerge as a truly unified force, and even if they did, who emerges as victorious from Egypt’s mass of competing interests is not nearly as important as establishing a political system where all competing interests can be heard. The real victory in the Egyptian elections would be establishing a forum where all voices in society, from the most liberal and secular to the most religiously conservative, can play a role in shaping the future.

Photo Credit: Mr. Theklan

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