After Revolution, Egypt Falls Back on Tradition

Islamist parties claim victory in the first free elections since Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

Islamist parties in Egypt could win up to 70 percent of the seats in a new parliament. According to the Associated Press, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and the puritanical al-Nour Party won last weekend’s elections resoundingly, possibly enabling them to play a key role in the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution soon.

If the results bear out and are repeated in the next rounds of voting, Egypt’s main Islamist parties would command an overwhelming majority in the freely elected legislature and could feel empowered to implement religious laws in a country that has lived under an Arab nationalist and secular government for half a century.

Ahead of last week’s vote, the Brotherhood in Egypt indicted a willingness to cooperate with secular parties. It did say to favor a ban on alcohol and allowed pious Muslim women to wear traditional garb that was frowned upon during the Mubarak regime and associated with religious extremism.

The al-Nour Party is more fanatical. According to a spokesman, it will push for an alcohol ban across Egypt, including tourist areas for which the Brotherhood was prepared to make an exception. al-Nour also champions the erection of a dedicated police agency to ensure that people fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The preliminary election results are a reminder of the limited support that the persistent revolutionaries of Tahrir Square enjoy across the spectrum of the Egyptian population.

The ousting of longtime president Hosni Mubarak was extremely popular but modernization along Western lines should not be expected any time soon, especially as the notion of “economic reform” has been tarnished by the halfhearted liberalization efforts of the 1990s which opened Egypt’s economy up to the world but also institutionalized corruption and strengthened single party rule.

The need for a pro-growth program is pressing all the same. Months of political upheaval have left Egypt’s economy in shambles. Foreign direct investment has virtually come to a standstill while the tourist industry, which employs up to two million people and accounts for more than 11 percent of gross domestic product, remains idle. Egyptian growth has stalled and no major reforms can be expected from the Islamist parties that are hostile to globalization and wary of international trade.

A traditionalist moment, perhaps a religious revival should be considered likely in the short term. The breakdown of a fifty year-old regime and the chaos of an infant democracy that has replaced it left many Egyptian voters apparently craving for a semblance of order and predictability.

The Brotherhood, although it was formally banned as a political organization by the National Democratic government, is familiar to many Egyptians as a charitable institution. Voters evidently deemed it a safer choice than opting for one among an array of secular parties, ranging from the far left to conservative.

Runoff elections for the first round of voting are scheduled for early next week. A second round will take place in the second half of December and a third in January. There are nearly five hundred seats up for grabs however only two-third can be contested by political parties. The remaining seats are open to candidates running as individuals although they may be associated with an established political force.

The military council currently ruling Egypt has promised to respect the election results but insists that the army’s status remain “unchanged,” which would cement its heavy presence in the national economy, and that the “secular nature” of Egypt is maintained.