CAIRO – For the first time in Egypt’s modern history, Islamists, the most organized political group on the ground with a recognizable outreach to every corner of the country, seem close to governing Egypt, after decades of social influence.
Being the most confident, coherent and active group in both social and political spheres of Egypt’s post-Mubarak era, Islamists put many actors -domestically, regionally and internationally — on alert. Domestically, Christians and liberals believe that Islamic rule means their exclusion from public affairs. Regionally, Israel and Arab countries fear that Islamist leadership of Egypt means losing a moderate neighbor that had been working to keep balances intact in the hot Mideast.
As for the world’s big powers, which have always depended on Egypt to keep peace and security in the area, they worry that Islamist rule will mark a dramatic change that may lead to a fundamentalist Egypt, one that might introduce a Sunni version of hardline Iran Islamism, which has been suppressed in the Egyptian Republic since its founding in 1952.
In the media, the Muslim Brotherhood, long experienced in public works and the most organized sect of Islamists, now provides regular guests on all talk shows and is covered by private as well as public TV news channels. Moreover, they are preparing to launch their own channel this summer to promote themselves professionally and to fulfill their political agenda among Egyptians.
Salafis, less organized but widely popular in Upper Egypt, the countryside and Cairo, are now regular commentators on Egyptian TV and in the press.
Socially, Islamists are more prominent. Besides their role in organizing and leading in the streets during the 18 days of Egyptian protests that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down Feb. 11, Islamists are the real drivers for at least 40 percent of Egyptians who live in less developed urban cities and villages.
Right after Feb. 11 the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis began organizing public lectures at public places including mosques, public markets, universities and its affiliated dorms, and side and main street venues to explain their vision of what is next for Egypt economically, socially and politically. Days later and after the burning of a church in Helwan province, south of Cairo, in what seemed to be a feud between a Muslim and a Christian family, Salafis, through their public figure Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, convinced Muslims there to let the army rebuild the church.
It was ironic that for long time the entire apparatus of government, civil society and scholars had failed to talk to people there. Yet, in a few hours Sheikh Hassan calmed the situation and got people’s approval to prove Islamists’ strength in social affairs of the state. When thousands of Muslims, mostly mobilized by Salafis, protested in the southern Egyptian province of Qina against the appointment of a Christian governor, the government was forced to freeze his post. A few days later the governor had nowhere to go except to resign.
Politically, Islamists are running much better. Utilizing fragile liberal and leftist forces, Islamists set out to form more than one religiously inspired political party. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood, after struggling to form a legitimate political party for more than eight decades, has recently launched their own “Freedom and Justice” Party, declaring that they will contest for 50 percent of parliamentary seats in next September elections but will not run for the presidency.
Islamists are highly favored to win a slight majority in the parliamentary elections in September. Several factors support this belief:
First, in a religiously inspired society like Egypt, political parties and groups that raise religious slogans can easily reach the public, regardless of their political programs, ideologies or the sincerity of their candidates.
Second, being oppressed for many decades by old regimes, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Salafis have sympathy and wide support among Egyptians, who see them as victims of a corrupted secular regime that “wanted to exclude religion from society.”
Third, Islamists’ work with social and economic welfare programs during Egypt’s long history of economic hardship gives them wide popularity among the poor.
Last, fragmentation and fragile organization of all other liberal and leftist forces has left a vacuum in the political sphere that Islamists will exploit to further their interests.
In the coming parliamentary elections, and regardless of the system of governance — presidential or parliamentary, electoral plurality or proportional representation — there is no doubt that Islamists can easily gain a slight majority that will enable them to reshape Egyptian domestic and foreign policies.
Ahmed Abd Rabou is assistant professor of comparative and Asian Studies, Cairo University.