According to Egypt’s elections committee, the Muslim Brotherhood won 37 percent of the vote of the first round of voting in Egypt, and the Salafis, who promote a yet more extreme Islamist program, won 24 percent, giving them together a jaw-dropping 61 percent of the vote.
This stunning result prompts two questions: Is this a legitimate or rigged outcome? Are Islamists about to dominate Egypt?
Legitimate or rigged? No one took seriously Soviet elections with their inevitable 99 percent returns for the Communists, and, while the process and outcome of the Egyptian elections are less blatant, they deserve similar skepticism. The game is more subtle, but it’s still a game, and here is how it’s played:
The Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and the military dictatorship (ruling Egypt since 1952) have a parallel ideology and a long history that makes them simultaneously rivals and allies. Over the decades, they off-and-on cooperated in an autocratic system bound by Islamic law (Sharia) and in oppressing liberal, secular elements.
In this spirit, Anwar El-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, and now Mohamed Tantawi tactically empowered Islamists as a foil to gain Western support, arms, and money. For example, when George W. Bush pressured Mubarak to permit more political participation, the latter responded by having 88 Muslim Brotherhood members elected to parliament, thereby warning Washington that democracy means an Islamist takeover. The apparent weakness of non-Islamists scared the West from further insisting on a transition to political participation. But a close look at the 2005 elections finds that the regime helped the Islamists gain its 20 percent of the seats.
Today, Tantawi and his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still play this tired old game. Note the various methods:
Reports of electoral fraud have emerged, for example in Helwan.
SCAF has, according to the prominent Islamist Safwat Hijazi, offered a “deal” to the Islamists that it would share power with them on condition that they turn a blind eye to its corruption.
The military has subsidized both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi political parties during the recent parliamentary elections. Marc Ginsburg reports on a SCAF slush fund totaling millions of dollars in “the form of ‘walk around’ money, clothing and food giveaways” that enabled hundreds of local chapters of Islamist political organizations to buy votes. Ginsburg tells of a SCAF emissary who “met secretly with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist oriented political movements last April to establish local political ‘action committee’ bank accounts to funnel an underground supply chain of financial and commodity support.”
Other Middle Eastern dictators, such as the Yemeni president and Palestinian Authority chairman, also play this double game, pretending to be anti-Islamist moderates and Western allies while, in fact, being toughs who cooperate with Islamists and repress true moderates. Even anti-Western tyrants like Assad of Syria and Qaddafi of Libya have played the same opportunistic game in times of need, portraying massive uprisings against them as Islamist movements. (Recall how Qaddafi blamed the Libyan insurrection on al-Qaeda’s lacing teenagers’ coffee with hallucinatory pills.)
If the military colludes with Islamists to remain in power, obviously it, not the Islamist faction, retains ultimate control. This is the key point that conventional analysts miss: The recent election results allow the military to keep power. As aspiring Egyptian politician Mohamed ElBaradei correctly notes, “It is all in the hands of SCAF right now.”
True, if Islamists control the parliament (not a sure thing; the military could yet decide to reduce their percentage in future rounds of an unusually complex voting procedure open to abuse), they acquire certain privileges and move the country further toward sharia law — as far, anyway, as SCAF permits. This maintains the long-term trend of Islamization underway since the military seized power in 1952.
What about Western policy? First, press SCAF to build the civil society that must precede real democracy, so that the modern and moderate civilians in Egypt have a chance to express themselves.
Second, instantly cease all economic aid to Cairo. It is unacceptable that Western taxpayers fund, even indirectly, Egypt’s Islamization. Resume funding only when the government allows secular Muslims, liberals, and Copts, among others, freely to express and organize themselves.
Third, oppose both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Less extreme or more, Islamists of every description are our worst enemies.
— Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Cynthia Farahat is an Egyptian activist and co-author of a book about the Tahrir Square protests.