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Egypt's conservative revolution

As parliament sits for its inaugural session, how religious is the new Egyptian democracy?

Almost exactly a year after the first anti-Mubarak demonstrators moved into Tahrir Square, and after the free-est and fairest elections in the country's history, members of the newly elected Egyptian parliament have been taking their seats. So what does democracy, Egyptian-style, look like?

Most obviously, religious. The new legislature is dominated by parties claiming an Islamic grounding for their policies. After the second, proportional allocation of seats was announced, the Muslim Brotherhood (standing under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party), was left with almost half the total. The Salafist al-Nour party has close to a third. The two groups do not get on, and would probably not have formed a coalition even had the Muslim Brotherhood needed substantial support. But this should come as little comfort to liberals and secularists, for they represent different versions of the same phenomenon. That the main challenge to the long-established but previously banned Brotherhood should have come from the religious right speaks volumes about where the centre of gravity in Egypt, and in much of the Arab world, now rests.

Moderate liberals and secularists, meanwhile, performed badly. Make that catastrophically. The leading centrist party, New Wafd, ended up with a third of the seats won by the Salafists, while the Revolution Continues coalition, which represents the spirit of the anti-Mubarak protests, attracted less than a million votes and took just seven seats.

It's also worth noting that not a single woman running for election was elected in her own right. General Tantawi (head of the "interim" military leadership) has used his executive power to appoint three women (and some Christian Copts) to the assembly, but that still leaves a mere one per cent of the seats occupied by women. The Muslim Brotherhood says it has no objection to women holding political office -- it even had some female candidates -- but the almost complete absence of women in the new parliament is unlikely to be a coincidence.

This, then, is the new Egyptian political class: 99 per cent male, overwhelmingly religiously conservative, with a strong leaning towards the ultra-conservative.

That the Brotherhood would win the election was widely expected. Some of its credibility comes from its having been for decades at the heart of opposition to Egypt's military rulers. While it did not itself spearhead last year's revolution, it was perfectly positioned to take advantage of it; not least because of its long history and an organisation nous of which more ad hoc revolutionaries could only dream.

More recently, the party has also formed a surprising (and to liberals, unwelcome) alliance with the army establishment that took over from the deposed president Hosni Mubarak. In recent months, the Brotherhood has studiously held aloof from leaders of the democracy movement, instead negotiating with the military council. The differences between them are less about the role of religion in the state than over such things as civilian control of the military and the granting of immunity to persons connected with the former regime. To a large extent, the Brotherhood's victory is, ironically, a victory for the establishment.

Even so, the scale of their triumph, and the decimation of secular and liberal parties, has been stunning. There can be little doubt that, at least for the time being, and possibly for the foreseeable future, political Islam represents the will of the great majority of the Egyptian people -- the ones who weren't tweeting live from Tahrir Square or taking their clothes off on the internet. This doesn't mean that Egypt will become a new Iran. On the contrary, these days the Muslim Brotherhood prefers to look to the moderate Islamic democrats who now run Turkey as a model. Its political programme is not a blueprint for theocracy. An Egypt ruled according to its manifesto would not be notably more religious or less pluralistic than the one that exists today.

Nor is there any evidence that the voters were calling for "more Islam" (whatever that means) when they gave the Freedom and Justice Party its huge mandate. Their concerns were elsewhere. The real problems of Egypt are economic: high unemployment, a burgeoning population poverty, a low skills base, a currency crisis (worse, in its way, than that of Greece), declining tourist numbers, an industrial sector dominated by moribund state enterprises and cronyism. To these pressing questions, the Muslim Brotherhood's answers are boringly mainstream: a free-market economy; a strengthened role private sector; less corruption.

If religion was not a big issue in the campaign, however, it may be because much of the Islamisation that the Muslim Brotherhood stands for has effectively been won. Egypt is more visibly Islamic today than it was a generation ago. That that is so owes something to the policies of the ousted regime, which countered the influence of the Brotherhood partly by adopting some of its language and ideas. But at a deeper level it reflects a mood in society.

When he was asked whether his party would seek to impose the hijab, the Freedom and Justice Party's Saad el-Katatni said: "I cannot draft a law that says an unveiled woman will be forbidden from this or that . . . (but) I must make her feel that her punishment is in the afterlife."

There speaks the authentic voice of what is now the political centre ground in Egypt, and indeed in most of the wider Middle East.