Why are Egyptians and the west surprised by the Islamists' victory in post-revolutionary Egypt?

What should liberals do to play any effective role in Egypt's post-revolutionary parliament? It is time to stop moaning and start acting
Solava Ibrahim
13 January 2012

Two weeks ago I made a bet with one of my Tahrir Square friends that Islamist forces would win about 60% of the electoral seats in Egypt's first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections. After the second round of the elections, liberal Egyptians are scared of a repeat Iranian scenario, the Copts are thinking of immigrating and the west is in shock.  As an Egyptian social science researcher working with people in poor communities, I cannot understand this shock, since this big gain by the Islamists was foreseeable.

I will explain why. Firstly, many liberal forces decided to underestimate - or even ignore - the power of Islamist parties and their 'religious' discourse. Such naivety has led many liberals to believe that abolishing the use of Islamic symbols in electoral campaigns and preventing - at least formally - the establishment of political parties based on religious grounds was enough to reduce the power of such forces. Those propounding such arguments have only proved yet again that their understanding of Egyptian society remains confined to the limits of their Facebook pages.

In my own research, I asked Egyptians in two poor communities, in Menia (Upper Egypt) and in Manshiet Nasser (a slum area in Cairo) about 'what they value the most in life'. To the surprise of the liberals, it was not freedom, dignity or social justice that ranked highest, nor even income or jobs, but rather religion! This demonstrates the profound purchase of such a discourse on Egyptian society - despite the secular nature of their revolution.

Secondly, those surprised have also underestimated the resilience, relevance and flexibility of Islamist forces. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), in particular, was able not only to survive but even to expand its outreach and to become the 'real' underground opposition - despite repression by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.  So why should their performance in a 'free' Egypt be so unexpected? Despite Mubarak's brutal repression of the Brotherhood, by 2005 they had already succeeded in winning about 87 out of 454 seats in parliament. For more than 60 years, they have been building their infrastructure, gaining experience, rallying more supporters, and widening their outreach. Above all they understood what the Egyptians - especially in poor communities - needed and they helped them to get it.

The only healthcare centre in a slum area is usually established and run by Islamists. The only support for poor families at the beginning of the school year is from Islamic groups. They are simply closer to the grassroots and their programmes - focusing on health care and education - are more relevant to poor Egyptians than the freedom chants in Tahrir Square. For those Egyptians, Islamists speak their language.

In contrast, liberal forces spent the ten months after the revolution debating and protesting, rather than trying to reach out to these Egyptians whose votes they desperately needed. Their campaigns and their 'battles' remained confined to Tahrir Square, to Facebook groups, to TV talk shows and to the formation of more than a dozen parties that only rendered them weaker. These liberal forces imagined that the 'man in the street' would automatically support them after the sacrifices they made during the revolution. They failed to realise that each phase of Egypt's political transition requires a different political tool. Protests worked in order to rally support and topple the regime. However, elections are the next political tool that they needed to prepare for if they wanted to maintain this support and ensure a fair representation of revolutionary forces in Egypt's first post-revolutionary parliament.

Thirdly, the Islamists are much more pragmatic than the liberals. They know when to oppose and when to side with SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), while the liberals chose neither to compromise nor negotiate Egypt's future with SCAF. This pragmatism was obvious when the Islamist forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, refused to participate in the anti-SCAF protests in late November. What gives the Islamists the edge is the fact that they not only understand the playing field, but are able to use their tactics and adjust them to the constantly changing rules of the game. This ability to adapt was crucial for their survival and has enabled them to thrive during and after Mubarak's rule.

Fourthly, the power of Islamist forces also lies in their international links and their financial power.  Although they distributed flyers, T-shirts and even tomatoes and sugar during the elections, similar tactics were also used by liberal forces, especially Al Kutla Al Masreyya. Why did such bribery work well for the Islamists and not for the liberals? The answer lies in the ways these resources were used to mobilize voters. During the elections, liberal forces remained highly divided and hence the impact of their campaigns (despite all the money spent) was minimal. In contrast, Islamist forces knew that politics in Egypt is still strongly affected by religious, economic and communal motives. They used their abundant financial resources for these purposes.

Finally, there is no need to be scared. Egypt cannot turn into another Iran. Why? Because its social, historical and cultural legacy works against the repetition of such a model and because Islamist forces in Egypt lack the unified leadership that Khomeini provided for the Islamists in Iran. Besides, the army in Egypt made it clear that it is ready to interfere at any time to maintain the 'secular' nature of the Egyptian state.

What should liberals do to play any effective role in Egypt's post-revolutionary parliament? It is time to stop moaning and start acting! They can start talking to people living in villages and slums struggling to make ends meet. They can translate their intellectual discourses into popular language which ordinary Egyptians can understand and hopefully identify with. They can build a united front and give up the 'cartoon' parties they formed. They can start understanding the rules of the game and adopt suitable and adaptive tactics that suit Egypt's ever changing political scene. Only then can the liberals effectively participate with the Islamist forces in forming and transforming Egypt's post-revolutionary future.   

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