Why Didn’t the Secularists Do Better in the Egyptian Election?

Human Wrongs Watch

By James Maxwell* –Think Africa Press

Despite predictions that liberal, leftist and secular forces would be the main rivals to the FJP (Freedom and Justice Party), a combination of factors led to a disappointing performance.

Egyptians voting | Thinkafricapress.com

In Egypt, the first elections of the post-Mubarak era have delivered a conclusive victory for the two main Islamist groupings. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the electoral vehicle of the Muslim Brotherhood – secured 36.6% of the 9.7m votes cast, while the Nour Party (NP) – which advocates a hard-line Salafism – claimed 24.4%.

Although the success of the FJP was broadly expected, the high turnout for the ultra-conservative NP was a surprise to many. Before last week’s vote, it was generally assumed that the FJP’s main opponents would be the array of liberal, secular and left-wing parties whose leaders and activists were instrumental in the January 25 Revolution.

Why is it then that Egypt’s progressive forces performed so poorly at the ballot box, with the left-leaning Egyptian Block and Wafd parties managing just 13.4 & and 7.1% respectively of the vote?

The Tahrir Effect

In part, the poor performance was due to a depressed turnout, originally reported at 62% but then subsequently downgraded to 52% (changes made to include downgrading 14:48 07/12/11 – Editor).

Although this figure is fairly high in comparison to many Western nations – where turnout often slumps to as low as 50% or less – one might well have predicted considerably greater numbers of people to have voted given the deeply polarised state of Egyptian politics.

One might also reasonably assume that the opportunity to participate in the country’s first, supposedly free, parliamentary ballot would have encouraged higher levels of engagement.

The Military’s Violent Response

It seems, however, that the army’s violent response to the protests in Tahrir Square prior to the vote reinforced the suspicion – prevalent among the most radical elements of Egyptian society – that elections conducted under the conditions of military rule could not, as a matter of course, be sufficiently democratic; they would only serve to entrench the power of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

Many of the Tahrir Square protesters are said to have boycotted the election process on the grounds that it would legitimise non-civilian government. That decision may well be justified if allegations that the FJP has agreed a temporary or informal alliance with SCAF turn out to be accurate.

Ideological Divisions

Another factor in the failure of the secular parties is that, apart from agreeing that the role of Islam in public life should be subject to strict limitations, their economic and social policies vary in a number of fundamental ways.

For instance, the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, a small but well-established and influential party of the far left, favour rolling back the tide of neoliberal reforms implemented by Mubarak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as enhancing social and civil liberties.

Whereas the Justice Party, which is associated with Mona El Baradei, a leading economist and sister of potential presidential candidate Mohamed El Baradei, wants to gradually reduce the role of the state in the running of the economy.

Ideological divisions of this sort make it difficult for the secular and progressive forces to speak with one voice. The lack of a coherent policy programme – and therefore of a coherent campaign – severely limited the capacity of the secular political groupings to challenge the main two Islamist parties, both of which ran disciplined and determined operations.

Poor Organisation

Finally, the secular, liberal and left-wing parties simply did not have the time or the resources to develop grassroots networks and organisations on which to launch to an effective electoral campaign.

A case in point is that of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Hastily created in the aftermath of the fall of Mubarak, the SDP only gained legal status on July 11 and has limited access to funds.

As though to illustrate its hopeless lack of organisation, the party dithered for weeks over whether or not to actually participate in the elections before deciding, just four days ahead of the vote, to withdraw its 198 candidates.

By contrast, although formally prohibited under Mubarak (and Sadat and Nasser), the Muslim Brotherhood has been an active presence in Egypt for more than five decades.

Since it first emerged in the late 1940s – and despite periods of harsh state repression – it has patiently and diligently built up a huge support base among the many millions of religiously-inclined, socially conservative Egyptians who have for years quietly fostered resentment toward the secular authorities.

No Permanent Islamist Domination

Nonetheless, the failure of Egyptian secularists, modernisers and leftists at this early stage in the country’s transition to democracy need not mean permanent Islamist domination.

For a start, the Islamists themselves are fraught with internal tensions and power struggles. Observers would do well, for example, to pay attention to the burgeoning gulf between the radical aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing and the engrained conservatism of its elderly leaders.

*James Maxwell holds two degrees from the University of Glasgow – an MA (Hons) in Politics and an MSc in Legal and Political Thought. He has a particular interest in liberal political theory and its critiques, left nationalism and theories of uneven development. His work has appeared in The Independent, The Times, The New Statesman, and Bella Caledonia. Maxwell’s article was published on Dec. 7 by Think Africa PressGo to Original.

Also read:

Egyptian Women No Longer Satisfied to Walk One Step Behind Men’

Arab Spring, the Year the Idea of Power Shifted

The Arab Revolt – What Next?

Q&A with Mostafa Omar, of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists

Unstoppable Revolution in Egypt

Egypt: Military Junta, More Repressive Than Mubarak

Middle East Nuclear Free Bid Moves to Finland – Yet Another Lost Chance?

From Tahrir Square to Liberty Plaza – The Story of Asmaa Mahfouz Struggle

The American Autumn: Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street Unite

Dictator Mubarak Breaks to Mourn for Dictator Gaddafi

The Egyptian Revolution Was Inevitable And It Is Irreversible

2011 Human Wrongs Watch

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