Egypt on the edge

Yasmine El Rashidi writes: In Tahrir on November 25 the Islamist researcher and political analyst Ibrahim El Houdaiby told a group of us: “It would have taken a completely different direction had the Brotherhood come out last weekend and put their weight behind the people.” Even Islamists and some preachers and veiled women spoke of their disappointment with the Brotherhood; they hoped that it wouldn’t win the polls of the following week.

Still, the liberal parties were not able to find much support from the underclass, whether in poor urban districts or rural Egypt. They could not penetrate the decades-old informal networks that have long been dominated by family and tribal alliances, religious affiliations, or agents of the former regime. Even if they had succeeded, the most prominent of the liberal coalitions, the Egyptian Bloc, was headed by the Free Egyptians Party, founded by the telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris, whose popularity plummeted in June when he tweeted a cartoon of Mickey and Minnie Mouse wearing Muslim gowns and headdresses—Mickey with a bushy beard, and Minnie in a face veil. “Mickey and Minnie after…,” he wrote.

In the weeks following, a full-scale campaign was launched against him by Islamists, urging people to boycott his businesses. In a matter of weeks, 304,000 subscribers left his telecom provider, Mobinil, for local competitors; his company suffered losses of 96 percent for the third quarter of 2011. Even among some liberal Egyptians, Sawiris’s tweet was seen as going too far: “We are a largely Muslim country, Sawiris has to remember and respect that.” In response to the cartoon, a Coptic friend posted on Facebook a message that “the revolution was about unity, not such attacks.”

Amid all this, the Salafi Al-Nour Party has preached in favor of its puritan form of Islam, and a state governed by its principles—one with the same religious restrictions as Saudi Arabia—as the answer to the country’s social and economic woes. The Salafists swiftly followed the lead of the Muslim Brotherhood, providing free and subsidized goods and services to the poor, and focusing their campaign messages on the price of food and cost of living. We don’t know how much the party’s appeal was hurt or enhanced by the fact that its campaign posters didn’t feature pictures of its female candidates, and instead had an image of a rose above their printed names. At a political rally in a public square in Alexandria, it covered a statue of a mermaid with a cloth. But it appealed to Egyptians who spoke the language of the street and believed, among other things, that ultimately, the future of Egypt is in “the hands of Allah.”

In the days since the initial election results were released, the liberals have been discussing how to regroup and prepare for the weeks and voting rounds ahead. Many liberal Muslims and Copts are talking about what the future might hold, including immigration. The Islamist parties, for their part, are anxious not to be grouped together. The FJP has firmly stated that it will not enter an alliance with the Salafis, who themselves have said they will not walk in the shadow of the Brotherhood. (Before the elections, the two groups had agreed on a code of proper behavior during them, but they have not entered into a political alliance.)

In months to come, Egypt’s first freely elected parliament will probably be as fragmented as the political landscape that preceded it. During what will be a period of immense pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood will most likely emerge as a mediator and perhaps the ally of the parliament’s liberal coalition. The military, for its part, will undoubtedly continue to have a hand in the country’s affairs, whether overtly through a provision of the constitution, or through tactical pacts with factions in parliament. Having waited since 1928 for this moment, the Brotherhood can be expected to wait another few years before attempting to make any drastic or fundamental changes in the social and cultural life of the Egyptian state.

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