By Barry Rubin
Western observers, including the U.S. government view the situation in Egypt as improving. Actually, it's getting worse, partly due to U.S. policy. In April, that will become even more obvious. Egyptian parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 22. Supposedly, the Muslim Brotherhood faces a setback. But that either isn't true or doesn't matter. On one hand, the Islamists as a whole are likely to emerge even stronger and more radical. On the other hand, if the non-Islamist coalition boycotts the election, as it has announced, the Brotherhood and the current regime will be a lot stronger!
Originally, I wrote the following for paragraph two of this article: There will no doubt be an assumption in Western reportage that if the “opposition” does participate and does better and the Brotherhood does worse that means moderation is gaining.
But by the time this is being published the mainstream media's claims that things are going great had already begun. For example, here's how the New York Times explains it all to you:
"With the elections scheduled to begin in April, the Islamists who dominated the 2011-12 parliamentary and presidential votes appear more vulnerable than at any time since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two years ago."
But what possible reasons are there to believe this? There is no evidence that the Brotherhood or Salafists collectively will get a lot fewer votes. The most serious Egyptian poll shows that the Brotherhood might get just under 50 percent of the vote! Obviously that's very tentative two months before the elections. So what did they get last time? Answer: 37 percent of the vote and about half the seats. True, this time the Salafist vote will be split so the two together can be expected to get fewer than the 64 percent of the vote and almost 75 percent of the seats they won the first time. But a large majority of Egyptians can be expected to vote for an Islamist regime. And if the moderates boycott the Islamists could receive 90 percent of the seats!
The Islamists' real problem is that there are now four Islamist parties, varying from moderately radical to incredibly radical here’s the list:
--The Strong Egypt Party headed by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. He is presented as a moderate Islamist and will no doubt be the favorite of the U.S. Columnist and Editorialist Party. Yet, one might ask, if Fotouh is so moderate why was he endorsed in the first round of the presidential election by radical Brotherhood guru Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Salafist al-Nur Party?
To keep an open mind, Fotouh is more moderate than the others and he opposed the constitution drafted by the Brotherhood. It is possible he could form an alliance with the National Salvation Front. But there’s something misleading here, too. Fotouh got an impressive 17 percent in the presidential election. Yet wasn’t this vote due almost completely to non-moderate Salafists who just didn’t want to back the Brotherhood presidential candidate in the first round after their own candidate was disqualified? If so, Fotouh’s party will be a failure.
--The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. This received 37 percent of the votes and about half the seats in the original parliamentary election. If the National Salvation Front doesn't boycott, the Brotherhood might lose seats but if the moderates don't run in the election the Brotherhood will get even more seats!
--The main Salafist party, al-Nur. This party won 27.8 percent in the original parliamentary election but its candidate for president was disqualified. Al-Nur varies between critical support of the Brotherhood (we’re all Islamists!) to just plain criticism (the Brotherhood isn’t Islamist enough!). Al-Nur would willingly become the Brotherhood's coalition partner or at least support the regime from outside.
--The People's Party. The most radical forces in al-Nur have split from it, considering al-Nur to be too soft on the Brotherhood. They viewed the constitution--which provides for a transition to a Sharia state--too subtle.
So how will these parties split the Islamist vote? And will al-Nur and the People’s parties back Mursi for all practical purposes on the fundamental transformation of Egypt into a Sharia, Islamist state? Even if the two Salafist parties demand more, that doesn’t mean they will vote against the government to bring it down—they know they cannot win a majority on their own—and they aren't going to ally with the hated “secularists.”
Remember that U.S. policy is to support the Brotherhood as a “moderate” group to block the even more radical Salafists. Yet this strategy misses out on four points:
--The Brotherhood itself is radical.
--It often cooperates with the Salafists on everything from writing the constitution to trying to stop the construction of churches.
--The Salafists push the Brotherhood to be more militant.
--The Salafists get away, with Brotherhood support or tolerance, of extra-parliamentary violence against Christians, women, anti-Islamists, foreign embassies, etc.
Meanwhile, what of the National Salvation Front? It is led by ex-nuclear agency director Muhammad al-Baradei who in the past himself was a Brotherhood ally. He is also a dreadful politician with little or no personal appeal to the masses. It is comprised of two dozen parties, including far left and radical nationalist ones. Two of its best-known members are the New Wafd Party, which is nominally liberal and pro-capitalist but can engage in radical demagoguery, and the truly anti-Islamist Free Egyptians Party. It even includes ex-foreign minister and radical nationalist Amr Moussa.
And the New York Times gives the official line on this aspect also:
"Nonetheless, the boycott by the...National Salvation Front, underscores the depth of its animosity toward the governing Islamists. And it reveals the opposition’s continuing distrust of Egypt’s nascent political process."
Well, yeah, but most of all it underscores the depth of their foolishness and incompetence as the opposition is about--if it doesn't change its mind--to turn over the country totally to an Islamist regime. A boycott of the election is suicide, turning future legislation over to whatever the Brotherhood and Salafists agree on. Such a strategy would be the death knell of any remaining shreds of hope in a democratic Egypt. Indeed, U.S. credibility with the opposition is so low that it refused the State Department's urging to participate in the elections.
If the differences among Islamists seem wide, those of the other side are even broader. Boycott or no boycott are these people really going to stick together?
The likely result is a mess, conducive to anarchy or—more likely—an increasingly entrenched Islamist regime than to a moderate democracy. We are going to be told often in the next two months that things are going to get better in Egypt. I think it likely that they are going to get worse. A proper U.S. policy would be working covertly to strengthen and encourage the National Salvation Front, persuade it to participate in elections, and stop praising the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Instead the opposition boycotted Secretary of State John Kerry because U.S. policy is deemed to be supporting the Islamists. One of the slogans of the small anti-Kerry demonstrations was that U.S. policy wanted to turn Egypt into Pakistan. Think of that: the moderate, non-Islamist forces in Egypt (and in Turkey and other countries for that matter) believe the U.S. government is their enemy, helping to foist Islamist dictatorships on their countries!
And that opposition isn't wrong in thinking that's what's happening in practice.
And so, as one of my readers wrote me:
"You know the world has turned upside down via two American presidential elections when there exists more ardor for an Islamist government in the U.S. [government] than in Egypt at large."
Egypt favors the Brotherhood by around 40 to 50 percent and backs the Islamists as a whole by around 66 percent. The U.S. government favors the Islamists by 100 percent.
To summarize, while Western coverage will stress the election as a defeat for the Brotherhood and a step toward greater moderation in fact the probable outcome is a government based either on a minority Brotherhood regime with Salafist support from outside the coalition or a Brotherhood governing alliance with al-Nur. Despite continuing protests, the majority of the Egyptian people aren't objecting against too much extremism; they are demanding even more!
While Salafists might join with moderates on some actions to limit government power overall, they can be expected to support the Brotherhood on any steps toward more Islamization of Egypt. The al-Nur Party is working hard to avoid any conflict with the Brotherhood. It's People's Party rival is going to criticize the Brotherhood for being too moderate! The idea of a Salafist-moderate alliance in any meaningful way doesn't make sense. And the government will have less incentive to counter any Salafist violence as long as it isn't directed against the regime, the main exception being armed struggle against the government in the Sinai.
In short, rather than making the Egyptian regime more moderate it is likely to make it more radical. But we'll have to get closer to the election date and then see the results to know for sure.
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 latest 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.