The most notable result of the first phase of the Egyptian elections, of which there are two phases still to come during which two thirds of the [Egyptian] electorate will cast their votes, is the alarming percentage obtained by the Salafist political trend, which put them in second place after the Muslim Brotherhood, a percentage almost equal to what was obtained in total by the current comprising the liberal and leftist parties.
The Salafists have not only caused various other political currents to be alarmed with regards to the rise of political Islam, but they have also unsettled even the major Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The alarm stems firstly from the high percentage of votes the Salafists received in the initial phase; close to a quarter of overall votes, something no one expected, and secondly from the surprising statements of its leaders. These statements have initiated an early battle regarding matters integral to Egypt’s social contract, such as women’s rights, personal freedoms and behavior within society, and even symbols of Egyptian culture such as the Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz, who prior to his death predicted that parliament would, in the future, experience devastating ideological and political battles if it continued to follow the same path.
There is surprise within the [Egyptian] political arena, yes, but some also feel a deep sense of frustration with regards to these election results. The revolutionaries and their supporters only achieved a small proportion of the votes. The elections were supposed to be about a new force that had formed in recent months, such as the Kutla al-Masriya [the Egypt bloc] which is a coalition of liberal and leftist parties, but the Salafist party is also new and only months old, yet it achieved higher results, so what happened? Is there cause for alarm? Will we see something along the lines of the gloomy joke which says that Egypt is now divided into two parties, Takfir wal-Hijra [a radical Islamist group, here a reference to the Islamists] and Tafkir fil-Hijra [those thinking of leaving the country]?
There are certainly those concerned about the form and identity of the Egyptian state in the coming period. This will be the first parliament after the ouster of the former regime, and it will be in power when the time comes to discuss the new constitution which will regulate the rules of the game, political freedoms and so on. If this [constitution] does not reflect a social consensus that everyone accepts, then the next conflict will be even more violent and destructive.
However, consideration must be given to the other side of the coin, as there is no reason to give in to a state of frustration. Experience and the last few months have shown us that political attitudes are changing, and that no one – including the Egyptian Salafists, despite the radical ideas they have put forward – is incapable of changing their ideas and adapting themselves politically to the requirements of the stage and the age, in order to be accepted by society.
First of all, the political Salafist trend in Egypt has changed its attitudes and ideas since 25 January , although it must also be stated that this was as a result of the pressure of the [Egyptian] public and street. The Salafists were initially against the revolution and the youth taking to the streets to protest, considering this to be contrary to their ideological viewpoint that one may not deviate from his ruler. Yet afterwards we saw them taking part in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, and more importantly they agreed to form a political party to take part in the elections and compete for votes just like any other political movement. This is a fundamentally western idea that the Salafists used to reject. They also used to reject even the idea of western democracy that considers the people as the source of authority, as their original idea was based upon the concept of Hakimiyya [the principle that God is the sole authority].
It is noteworthy that the same transformation has happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in recent decades, when it began to accept the ideas of assuming governance through the ballot box, and the peaceful transfer of power. The Brotherhood undertook political action through its political party, even if they made sure that their Islamic Dawa [call] group remained present in the background.
Does this mean that we are now facing developments in the concepts and methods of political Islamist trends, moving towards an acceptance of the rules of the democratic game and the transfer of power? This is something that can only be judged in the future. If this truly happens, with the Islamists coming to power in parliament via the votes of the ordinary people, this means [the Islamists] have accepted that they [the people] are the source of authority. In turn, they have accepted to leave office if the voice of the people changes, i.e. accepting the principle of the transfer of power, and this is something that the forthcoming constitution must emphasize.
We do not want to speculate by predicting the size of the political Islamist representation (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) in the next parliament, although it is expected that they will find themselves in a sizeable confrontation with the liberal bloc, even if it is a minority in parliament. It is difficult to imagine that a broad representation of Egyptian society [in parliament] will accept a radical government or way of life.
(The writer is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief Asharq al-Awsat. The article was published at the London-based newspaper on Nov. 6, 2011.)