As Islamists emerge from elections as the country’s leading political force – to the alarm of democracy campaigners and regional autocrats alike – western governments will have to adapt to a power shift they have long sought to prevent.
Back in January, as popular protests against President Hosni Mubarak gathered pace, the Muslim Brotherhood was easy to spot, its young women in headscarves and youths taking charge of security checkpoints in Tahrir Square. But, as just one of the many groups organising daily life in the encampment that formed the nerve centre of the uprising, the 80-year-old Islamist movement was not especially prominent.
Yet within nine months, the Brotherhood had reclaimed its status as Egypt’s most powerful political force following decades of suppression. In the country’s first free parliamentary elections, its newly created Freedom and Justice party won more than 35 per cent of the vote in the first round, and slightly more in December’s second round.
Even more worrying for those hoping the Arab world’s largest nation would adopt a liberal, pro-western face, fellow Islamists from the puritanical Salafi movement emerged with more than 25 per cent, a score likely to be confirmed in the third and final round of voting in January.
Today, however, 20 years after Algeria’s military staged a coup to prevent a parliamentary landslide by the Islamic Salvation Front, and five years after Hamas rode to victory in the Palestinian territory only to face a western boycott, Islamists are demonstrating their power of survival.
“This is the real Egyptian revolution,” says Jon Alterman of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and one of the international observers at the Egyptian elections. “In February, the military removed Hosni Mubarak. This is the revolution that reorients power in Egypt.”
In both a domestic and a broader Arab context, the political events of the past few weeks in Egypt represent a political earthquake, one that Arab regimes and western powers alike had long sought to prevent.
For decades, the region’s rulers defended their authoritarianism to western partners by raising the spectre of an Islamist takeover as the only alternative. Any prospect of the US or other western allies holding a dialogue with Islamists was seen as an affront.
“The foreseeable future is Islamist – this much we know. It’s just a reality that people have to come to terms with,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “People want to see Islam play a larger role in political life and liberals are going to have to learn to speak the language of religion and stop being the anti-Islamist choice.” source – FT