The Islamists vs. The Markets: Egypt’s Election Analyzed

In Hugh Roberts’ excellent essay in last week’s London Review of Books, he makes a common enough point: “Religion had little to do with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt.” But to anyone paying attention to the Arab Spring, that might seem an absurd conclusion. After all, it is religious parties that seem to be doing very well for themselves.

Not to mention, “religion” is an incredibly difficult term to capture, especially when trying to analyze volatile and complex movements not even a year old. But let’s see where we stand, electorally.

In Morocco, recent elections have put forward an Islamist party with the same name as Turkey’s governing party—they are not connected, however—and the King has nominated an Islamist as Prime Minister as well. The Moroccan King saw the Arab spring arrived around him, and pushed reforms to preempt any uprising in his country.

In Tunisia, the Islamists won a plurality of the vote; now, the latest news from Egypt suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, as well as the primary Salafi party, al-Nour, are doing quite well. (Jadaliyya has a great and exhaustive round-up, with all the detail you ever wanted). There will be three rounds of voting for the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament, and these results so far only reflect the first round. There will be separate procedures for the upper house and for president.

And, of course, Egypt is still under the control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); protesters converged in Tahrir last week to demand their immediate resignations, but that seems to have failed to persuade most Egyptians not to vote—70% seems to be the most recent estimate for turnout.

These results leave many analysts feeling vindicated, in that they predicted that the Arab spring would turn into an Islamist revolution, and see these election results as proof of that. I am not so convinced. In part because I see a distinction between Islamist parties and Islamist political structure; while a governing party may be more religiously conservative, they will not necessarily be able to change the very structure of government.

Egypt, like Tunisia, seems to have developed a consensus around “civil” governance—not military rule, not Islamist, and not explicitly secularist.

Moreover, there are of course a number of practical reasons the Islamist parties may have done so well: they are well-organized, they have great social service and charity programs, and they have won the respect of many of their fellow citizens for their years facing oppression, discrimination, and outright torture. Once they’re actually in government, they will be judged on their performance, and not on appeals to identity, which are far more compelling when one is not in power. Anyway, they have done well—they haven’t won landslides. And in Egypt’s case, the Brotherhood may well end up competing with a party that is ideologically more uncomfortable, the Salafis, but organizationally and popularly far less intimidating.

But the bigger point here is that the winning Islamist parties have shifted their electoral platforms from one set of Islamic values—which are often identified as identity politics, and therefore individual and social, not political: issues such as family law, modesty, and religious behavior in public spaces—to another set of Islamic values, which lend themselves better to electoral politics and governance: clean politics, transparency, economic upliftment, and social welfare. It’s hard to see how the Salafist parties will get anywhere with rigid demands for imposition of (their narrow, unpopular, and historically uncommon) interpretations of Shari’ah.

Predicting the Futures

Realistically, I have no idea where these parties will lead their countries. I think, in Egypt’s case, while the Freedom and Justice Party will have little choice but to support democratic politics, they will not pursue a liberal democracy—they are a right-wing party, after all. I also believe Tunisia is, in the short-run, in much better shape than Egypt, and its Islamist party seems a lot nuanced and ready for government.

The Muslim Brotherhood, if it becomes the dominant force in politics, will immediately and perhaps always be operating from a disadvantage: many major powers around the world (specifically Western powers, but also some Arab and Muslim countries) will immediately distrust that government, no matter what its platform.

Predicting Even More in the Futures

I also think that the value of these democracies is perhaps romanticized. We are currently in a global situation wherein long-established Western democracies are completely powerless before international finance. Who seriously thinks that Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, or Iceland, or even the United Kingdom and Germany, have any meaningful democratic domestic consensus? Who seriously thinks that the people in those countries have any meaningful options in how their countries respond to the current economic crisis—which affects a whole range of domestic social policy and priorities?

And how will the Arab world possibly be any different? The source of much of the Arab world’s recent unrest lies in income inequality, injustice, authoritarianism, and economic stagnation. No country in the world, the United States included, can now pursue domestic policy independent of international financial markets. How much more so the Arab world—considering how much poorer and less developed it is? And in that case, what difference does it make what government you have? Left or right, the market seems always to win.

This is actually where I would locate the greater threat to Arab democracy, and the temptation to slide into some form of authoritarianism, older or newer. As the people of the region confront the reality that they have little say over economic policy, and will be forced to accede to the contingencies of global capitalism, they may well become immensely frustrated by the scale of change and demand something different. Considering how volatile European and American politics have become, and how frequently we now see street protests and even supposedly stable and demure countries, how much more so these new democracies?

And, I might add, the Freedom and Justice Party, like Turkey’s AKP, is a conservative, free-market party; they may, in this climate, simply be best suited to govern, although Egypt—like Turkey—enjoys a far broader social consensus around social welfare and mutual obligation than does the United States (don’t take the economic implications of right-wing too far). Nevertheless, perhaps unexpectedly, it is economic ideology that might give certain parties an edge, however distant these sympathies are from popular socialist demands, which seem these days to become less and less relevant to governments in power. It might be good for some Islamists in the short-term, but eventually it may well alienate them entirely from their peoples.