x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Democracy will be a balancing act in Egypt

The first results from Egypt's elections have alarmed many, but victory for Islamists may not be as bad as some now fear.

Observers inside and outside of Egypt expected the Muslim Brotherhood to make a strong showing in the first round of parliamentary voting in that country. Figures around 40 per cent were often mentioned, and in fact the Brotherhood won 36.6 per cent of the vote.

What hardly anyone expected, however, was the strong showing by the Islamist Nour Party, the political arm of the Salafist movement, which won almost 24.5 per cent of the vote. This will lead to alarmed second thoughts on the part of those - such as Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state - who have been steeling themselves to deal with the Brotherhood but now find that the arrival of democracy in Egypt may bring an even stronger, more alarming brand of Islamism. The emergence of Salafist electoral power will be at least as distressing to Egypt's Copts and other minorities, and to many women.

To be sure, this was only the first round of voting, covering one-third of the country, for the lower house only. There will be many more election results to interpret in Egypt over the next few months. But these numbers do suggest that the Islamists are more deeply rooted than many had understood, especially considering that the numbers include Cairo and Alexandria, relative strongholds for liberals.

It is too early to conclude that these results are a disaster. To be sure, Salafists's fierce rhetoric and more-than-occasional tendency to violence are alarming. But a number of factors suggest that the Salafists and their views are far from sweeping to power. First, they will reportedly refuse to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, which would mean that they will not be part of any new government, especially if the Brotherhood holds to campaign promises to govern inclusively.

Second, the movement is said to have sharp internal divisions, generational as well as over policy, which means Nour's light may be too diffused to shine brightly. Third, Nour's strong backing in poor neighbourhoods may reflect public support for the Salafists' industrious welfare work rather than for their views. Fourth, electoral politics everywhere tend to push hard-line movements to the centre eventually.

Egyptians wanted free elections, and now they are having them. The results will not please everyone - not the military, and certainly not the West. But governing Egypt is now one step closer to being firmly in Egyptians' hands. Liberals, conservatives and Salafists alike must determine what that means.