x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Why Egypt's Islamists find the hardline road blocked

Letter from Cairo Islamist parties in Egypt are unlikely to introduce a strict interpretation of Islam, not least because the ruling military has appointed a council to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, and the new parliament will not be able to form a government.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Giza district near Cairo on Wednesday in the run-off of the second round of legislative election.
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Giza district near Cairo on Wednesday in the run-off of the second round of legislative election.

Despite sweeping successes at the polls, Islamist parties in Egypt are unlikely to introduce a strict interpretation of Islam, not least because the ruling military has appointed a council to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, and the new parliament will not be able to form a government. Youssef Hamza, Foreign Correspondent reports

CAIRO // The stunning victory by Islamist parties in the first two rounds of Egypt's landmark parliamentary elections has led many to believe that it is just a matter of time for the Arab world's most populous nation to become an Islamic state - one that is a supporter of militant groups such as Lebanon's Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and an enemy of the US and Israel.

It is not an outlandish prediction, given that the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest political group, won nearly half of the seats contested in the first round and that the much more fundamentalist Salafis have won 20 per cent, leaving the liberals and small parties to share the rest.

The two groups won 29 and 23 seats respectively in the second round, according to partial results announced on Sunday. They were expected to win many more in runoffs this week.

It is likely that the election's third round, due in January, will produce similar results, thus lending credence to forecasts of an Islamic Republic of Egypt just around the corner.

The odds of that happening, however, are slight - not least because the ruling military does not seem to subscribe to the notion that parliaments, including those that come into being through fair and free elections, are truly representative of society. The military has decreed that the new parliament, which will only sit after elections for the largely toothless upper house are completed in March, will not appoint a government, dismiss one or even control the drafting of a new constitution.

This will not be the US Congress, was the dismissive response of Maj Gen Mukhtar Al Mallah, a member of the military council, when asked about the powers of the next legislature.

What amounts to an anti-democratic posture by the military is a welcome development for the liberals and left-leaning groups that have been decimated at the ballots held nearly 10 months after they engineered the removal of Hosni Mubarak's 29-year regime. But to the Islamists, it is an attempt by the military to cling on to the absolute power it has wielded since Mr Mubarak's fall in February.

The military is undeterred. Ignoring the opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, it went ahead and appointed a 30-member consultative council that will, among other things, oversee the drafting of the new constitution, a task that had been thought to be well within the authority of the new legislature.

Maj Gen Al Malla made no effort to disguise the motive behind the creation of the council.

"Absolutely. ... The Egyptian people won't allow this to happen," he told a small group of foreign journalists when asked whether the council was designed to rob the new parliament of the opportunity to introduce a strict interpretation of Islam.

"There will be standards agreed upon by all the Egyptian people. This is not out of mistrust of the parliament. What we are seeing is free and fair elections ... but it certainly doesn't represent all sectors of society," he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting the military-appointed council, but has yet to say what it plans to do next.

The military's move should ensure that the new constitution is not influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists dominating the legislature. But it also could prove to be a pyrrhic victory, putting the two sides - the ruling generals and the Islamists - on a collision course, a prospect that carries the potential for street clashes, or worse.

In the meantime, the next legislature may not sit long enough to bring the country's laws in line with a strict interpretation of Islam's teachings, legislate a ban on alcohol or introduce some of the harsher Islamic punishments.

With a new constitution and a new president in place by the end of June next year, if the military's timetable is honoured, a new parliamentary election is most likely to be called before the end of next year. If that happens, then beleaguered liberals and left-leaning groups will have enough time to recover, reorganise and learn from their electoral mistakes.

Not that they could reverse their defeat at the hands of the Islamists. At most, they could chip away at their rivals' parliamentary majority, crippling their ability to legislate with impunity. They could also benefit from fissures between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.

The military and another election are not the only two things capable of stopping the Islamists from taking Egypt down a hard-line path.

Egypt, a mainly Muslim and conservative nation of some 85 million people, has no stomach for extremism. The country's Muslims, as well as its Christians, are mostly known for their moderate expressions of piety.

Its large Christian minority, about 10 per cent of the population, makes it even more difficult for Egypt to become a purist Islamic state. Physically, Christians look no different from their compatriots. They also live side by side across the length and breadth of the country.

Economic realities also point to a continued middle-of-the-road approach to the nation's religious identity.

Tourism, for example, is the nation's fastest growing industry - or at least it was until the removal of Mr Mubarak and the upheavals that followed. It is also the most labour-intensive sector of the economy, making millions of households dependent on tourism-related incomes. An Islamic Egypt that bans alcohol, mixed beaches or the cohabitation of unmarried foreign couples in hotels could spell the end of the industry.

With unemployment officially put at around 10 per cent but perhaps more than twice that in reality, Egypt and its fast-growing population cannot cope with the loss or the decline of the tourism sector.

The alternative would be massive unrest by hundreds of thousands of unemployed youths, adding to the large sectors of the labour force with their own set of demands.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae