The success of Egypt’s Islamists marks a trend throughout the region

The Economist looks at the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists represented by the Nour party, whose combined successes in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections give an overall majority to the Islamists.

Surrounded by well-wishers at his home on a narrow dirt street in the village of Nazla, Wagih al-Shimi insists his Nour party would have done even better if the Brothers had not cheated. Blind from birth and lushly bearded, Fayoum’s new MP is a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence, preaches in local mosques, and has a reputation for resolving disputes according to Islamic law.

“We owe our success to the people’s trust, to their love for us because we work for the common good, not personal gain,” says Mr Shimi. As for a party programme, he says his lot will improve schools, provide jobs and reform local government, introducing elections at every level to replace Mubarak-era centrally appointed officials. As for the wider world Mr Shimi is vague, except to say that Egypt should keep peace with any neighbour that refrains from attacking it.

The Brotherhood echoes this parochialism: its party’s 80-page manifesto mentions neither Israel nor Palestine. The two groups have more in common. The Brothers profess to share the Salafists’ end goal; namely, to regain the pre-eminent role for Islam in every aspect of life that they believe it once held. Some leading Brothers even describe themselves as Salafist in ideology. Many secular Egyptians, too, especially Coptic Christians, who make up an increasingly beleaguered 10% minority, see little difference between rival Islamists.

Yet within the broad spectrum of political Islam, the distinctions between two are telling. Muslim Brothers tend to be upwardly mobile professionals, whereas the Salafists derive their strength from the poor. The Brothers speak of pragmatic plans and wear suits and ties. The Salafists prefer traditional robes and clothe their language in scripture. The Brothers see themselves as part of a wide, diverse Islamist trend. The Salafists fiercely shun Shia Muslims. Asked what he thinks of Turkey’s mild Islamist rule, a Nour spokesman snaps that his party had nothing to take from Turkey bar its economic model.

Nour says it rejects Iranian-style theocracy, but equally rejects “naked” Western-style democracy. Instead, in what some Salafists see as a daring departure from previous condemnation of anything that might dilute God-given laws, it wants a “restricted” democracy confined by Islamic bounds. Yasir Burhami, a top Salafist preacher, says that his mission is to “uphold the call to Islam, not to impose it on people.” Still, he believes the party can convince Egyptians to accept such things as banning alcohol, adopting the veil and segregating the sexes in public because “we want them to go to heaven”.

Brotherhood leaders say instead that they must respect the people’s choice. Their party includes a few Christians. It worked hard to build a coalition with secularists, too, though most of its partners soon withdrew. Whereas Nour party leaders openly call for an alliance with the Brothers to pursue a determined Islamist agenda, the older group, with its long experience of persecution, is wary. It says fixing Egypt’s ailing economy should take priority over promoting Islamic mores. The Brotherhood would probably prefer a centrist alliance that would not frighten foreign powers or alienate Egypt’s army, which remains an arbiter of last resort.

In any case, a Brotherhood-led government is not in the immediate offing. Egypt’s generals, discomfited as anyone by the Islamists’ advance, seem determined to find ways to delay it.

The New York Times reports: In the aftermath of the vote, Egyptian liberals, Israelis and some Western officials have raised alarms that the revolution may unfold as a slow-motion version of the 1979 overthrow of the shah of Iran: a popular uprising that ushered in a conservative theocracy. With two rounds of voting to go, Egypt’s military rulers have already sought to use the specter of a Salafi takeover to justify extending their power over the drafting of a new constitution. And at least a few liberals say they might prefer military rule to a hard-line Islamist government. “I would take the side of the military council,” said Badri Farghali, a leftist who last week won a runoff against a Salafi in Port Said, northeast of Cairo.

A closer examination of the Salafi campaigns, however, suggests their appeal may have as much to do with anger at the Egyptian elite as with a specific religious agenda. The Salafis are a loose coalition of sheiks, not an organized party with a coherent platform, and Salafi candidates all campaign to apply Islamic law as the Prophet Muhammad did, but they also differ considerably over what that means. Some seek within a few years to carry out punishments like cutting off the hands of thieves, while others say that step should wait for the day when they have redistributed the nation’s wealth so that no Egyptian lacks food or housing.

But alone among the major parties here, the Salafi candidates have embraced the powerful strain of populism that helped rally the public against the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era and seems at times to echo — like the phrase “silent majority” — right-wing movements in the United States and Europe.

“We are talking about the politics of resentment, and it is something that right-wing parties do everywhere,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. They have thrived, he said, off the gap between most Egyptians and the elite — including the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood — both in lifestyle and outlook.

“They feel like they represent a significant part of Egypt,” Mr. Hamid said, “and that no one gives them any respect.”

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