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Islamists Face Setback in Egyptian Presidential Election

Written by Barry Rubin

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Muhammad Mursi (Muslim Brotherhood, 25.3 percent
Ahmad Shafiq (ex-general, ex-prime minister), 24.9 percent
Hamdin Sabbahi (radical left), 21.5 percent
Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh (“moderate Islamist) 19 percent
Amr Moussa (radical nationalist) less than 10 percent

2012-634735828936537092-653-300x179While the Brotherhood claims victory, the election was actually a defeat—at least temporary and possibly less important than it seemed—for the Brotherhood and Islamism. Here’s why.

The Islamist Camp

Note that only about 44 percent of voters backed an Islamist candidate, compared to 75 percent in the parliamentary election, while only about 25 percent voted for the Muslim Brotherhood compared to about 47 percent in the parliamentary vote. Why?

To begin with, the two top Islamist candidates were removed by the election commission, the Brotherhood’s first choice and the only Salafist candidate. Presumably, many voters stayed home or opted for their second choice. The question is whether those who crossed the line and voted for a non-Islamist will return to the Brotherhood in the second round.

A key question is the 25 percent who backed a Salafist in the parliamentary election but could not do so in this one. Did they stay home, or vote for the Brotherhood or the “moderate Islamist,” or for a secular party?  And again, will most of them back the Brotherhood or a Mubarak era politician in the second round?

Clearly, the mistakes made by the Islamists were costly, and they do make many errors. The Salafists nominated a candidate who was vulnerable to vetting. He didn’t meet the qualifications of purely Egyptian citizenship for himself and his family.

On the Brotherhood’s part, victory in the previous elections made them more radical and more arrogant. They mistakenly cast off the cloak of pretended moderation too soon and too completely.  So much for the “Turkish model!” This hubris scared some voters.  Shafiq’s campaign managers warned voters that to an elect Mursi would set off a battle for an “Islamic empire.”

But note this theme of radicalism going along with victory because it is going to be one of the most important of all. Let’s summarize it:

When Islamists win, they become bolder and more aggressive. Western observers who talk about moderating Islamism think the opposite.

An opposing camp, however, those who argue all Muslims “must” be Islamists and that political Islam inevitably sweeps all before it have also been proven wrong. As I try to explain, this is a political struggle that can go either way depending on circumstances.

Islamism is by no means immune to social conditions. The strongest support for Mursi is in Egypt’s poor, underdeveloped south; the weakest backing is in the cities.

Yet let’s also remember that the Islamists are still heading for control over Egypt. They might win the presidency in the second round. The parliament, which they run, is going to make the rules and write the constitution. If they don’t like who becomes president, they will reduce his powers.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

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