“Egypt’s young liberal middle-classes are discovering that they were not the only forces set free by the downfall of President Hosni Mubarek. One leading liberal politician told me last week that he had been barely aware of Salafism until after the revolution. Suddenly, Salafi spokesmen are all over the media and are organizing politically. By some reckonings they could get 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections planned for September. The Muslim Brotherhood, the more established and less fundamentalist Islamist organization, is generally reckoned to be good for at least a third of the vote. Add in a couple of fringe Islamist parties and you could be looking at an Islamist majority in Egypt’s first parliament. ‘Entirely plausible,’ says a western diplomat in Cairo, as he sips his coffee.” Gideon Rachman, ‘Egypt’s liberals are losing the battle’, The Financial Times, April 26, 2011
It is a major battle to lose, that is for certain! The new parliament will have the power to rewrite Egypt’s constitution and so to shape the future of the country for decades to come. If the Islamists win, it is on the cards that this will be the first and last democratic election in the nation’s history. It is also on the cards that a theocracy would have significant appeal across the nation. For some 40 per cent of the nation subsists on less than $2 per day; and some 30 million Egyptians, out of a population of 74 million, are completely illiterate.
So the Muslim Brotherhood forced the military into a referendum that has led to early elections. Since the military has acquiesced in shutting down organizations previously supportive of Mubarek, the Muslim Brotherhood will supply the only political organization for the September elections. The liberals lost catastrophically 23 per cent to 77 per cent in the referendum, their first political test against the Brotherhood. If they lose by a similar margin in September their female members will have to run for covers, as they will have to run for deep cover.
The Salafists preach a fundamental version of Islam. They are eager to see all Egyptian women wearing the niqab – the all-encompassing veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes. They object to all kinds of music. They are not at all averse to hand-chopping and other seventh-century Islamic delicacies. I somehow doubt that the rule of law and the protection of individual liberties will rank highly on their scale of preferences.
In truth, the Salafists resemble the Taliban, in many unpleasant ways. Osama bin Laden – if he still lives – will be smiling broadly as he looks out over American folly from some remote cave on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.