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Egypt at the Dawn of a New Era

By Ronald Meinardus *

(Cairo) The elections that resulted from the popular uprisings in the Arab world have weakened the forces espousing individual freedoms and social progress and fortified, in a triumphant manner, conservative religious parties and groups. After the polls in Tunisia, Morocco and the first round in Egypt, we see a surge of religious forces which has traits of a political pattern. This has enormous implications for politics in the Arab region - and beyond. Expect drastic – if not dramatic – changes in the months and years to come.

Faced with dismal electoral results the mindset of Egypt's liberals alternates between shock, dismay and, yes, calculated optimism. After all, the optimists say, this being Egypt things will not turn out that bad in the end. Others try to calm themselves with the assertion that the Egyptian people have not kicked out one tyrant only to replace him with another one some months later. Only the future will show whether this confidence is justified, for history knows many betrayed revolutions.

The weakness of Egypt's liberal movement is both organizational and structural. I somehow hesitate to speak of "liberal" in this context as what is often referred to as "liberal" in local (and foreign) media is actually a conglomeration of political forces united only in opposition to the Islamists. It would be much more accurate to term this single-purpose grouping, the most prominent member of which is the "Egyptian Block" (a coalition of two socialist parties and one liberal party) "secular". But, then, to the average Egyptian the term secular is even more despicable than the term liberal. Therefore, to simplify things, let's stick to this attribute.

The first round of Egypt's historic elections has shown that the "liberal" parties are highly disadvantaged vis-à-vis their Islamist competitors. Equipped with great amounts of money and a closely knit network, the religious parties have prevailed in most constituencies. It is high time we come to terms with the fact that the true grass-roots movement in Egypt (and in other Arab countries) is neither liberal nor Western-minded or modernistic. Egypt's civil society is mainly religiously oriented, very conservative and anti-Western. Many years before Egyptians could dream about participating in democratic elections, this Islamist network was in place. It builds on a grid of mosques and social projects that assist the people where the state fails. And the Egyptian state has many shortcomings. At no time could the liberal forces produce comparable allegiances. From the outset, they competed in an uneven battle.

Add to this the ideological framework: Opinion polls reveal that the big majority of Egyptians are religious and also conservative. Some two thirds of Egyptian voters have opted for Muslim Brother or Salafist candidates not primarily because of those parties' efficient campaigns. They voted for them because they are convinced "Islam is the solution".

Extreme religious opinions are deeply entrenched in the people's minds. Four out of five Egyptians find the so called Hudud–punishments (stoning of adulterers, amputating hands of thieves and flogging) appropriate in our times; this is not a good starting position for liberal campaigners. Arguably the biggest surprise – or shock – of the elections has been that many voters are more conservative than the Muslim Brothers, who – also for tactical reasons – portrayed themselves as a force of moderation.

The principal political contest of the future will not take place between liberal and religious parties (or between democrats and remnants of the old regime). The main conflict will be within the Islamist camp between the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists. The Ikhwan, as the "Brothers" are called in Arabic, are in a strategic dilemma. If they decide to cooperate with secular forces this may strengthen their Salifst opponents who will argue that only they are true defenders of Islam. In case they cooperate with the Salafis, they may have to adopt policies many fear will lead the country backwards at a high cost for the economy. Dispelling foreign tourists (and investors) is but one possible scenario of such a pan-Islamist approach.

Possibly the greatest political irony of all has been that the forces whose struggles and sacrifices have made the elections possible are hardly visible politically. Historically, the Islamists are free riders who jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon after it had gained momentum. Now they have taken position to fill the opening power vacuum. Meanwhile, many revolutionaries of the first hour are hanging on in Tahrir Square engaged in long debates whether to stop the sit-in or not. Their demands continue to resonate with many Egyptians. However, the democratic elections have diminished the legitimacy of the street protests. At no point has "Tahrir" been weaker than it is today.

"It took 18 days to bring to down the last Pharao, it will take much longer to build the new Egypt our revolution has fought for", Egyptian friends tell me. In this process, Islamists will probably set the tone. They now have a chance to prove that they are not only good in charity work, preaching and campaigning, but also capable of ruling a big country with myriad problems. If they want to do so successfully, they need to rid themselves of ideological ballast. Whoever wants to overcome Egypt's challenges will not get around practicing commonsensical, and thus liberal, policies.

* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) for the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) in Cairo. Send comments to egypt@fnst.org.

Published in Daily News Egypt on December 9, 2011

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