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Editor’s Note: In a video debate on Bloggingheads.tv, Shadi Hamid and Robert Wright discuss the first round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.
SHADI HAMID: I just got back from Cairo last night and I was there for about 2 weeks. I was just going to cover the elections but what I got instead was that Egypt really seemed on the verge of implosion for a few days there, so it was fascinating to see the shift in mood over the course of those 2 weeks—from stagnation to despair to some degree of optimism.
ROBERT WRIGHT, BLOGGINHEADS.TV: But the funny thing is, now, at least as it is being viewed in the U.S., we are back to despair, because now that the first round of elections have taken place and the early reading on the elections is that the islamists have done better than many people had expected (although you actually predicted in a Foreign Policy piece a few weeks ago that they were going to do quite well). So it sounded like the Muslim brotherhood would take somewhere in the vicinity of 40%. And then in addition, and more surprisingly, they’re thinking another 25% may go to a party that’s even more conservative or religious party—the Salafists. So together, if you imagine these two forming a majority coalition, that would be a pretty conservative one, right?
HAMID: Yes. Of course, it depends on how you define conservative but yes, I think this caught people by surprise. What I’ve always said is that elections aren’t about popularity; they’re about organization, strategy and manpower. And on those three counts, no one does it better than the Islamists. So people shouldn’t read too much into this and say Egyptians love Islamists. It’s a little bit more complicated than that. But the Salafis, who are the more let’s call them “literalists” of the islamists or the ones with the more uncompromising view of Islamic law, they did better than almost anyone expected. I mean most estimates were around 10% but it looks like they might get closer to around 20%. But I will say this is just the first round of elections. There are still two more and God knows what could happen. There could be a shift in support. So we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves but yes, the preliminary indications show Islamists are dominating in Egypt.
WRIGHT: In theory, if you imagine this coalition actually having power (Muslim brotherhood plus the Salafis), do you have any sense for what kinds of laws they would want to govern Egypt that are different from the laws that govern Egypt now?
HAMID: Yes, we have to make a big distinction between the brotherhood and the Salafis. They’re both Islamists in orientation but they’re very different in how they see things around them. The brotherhood is not ideologically rigid. It’s a very pragmatic organization that I would put in the center-right of the Egyptian political spectrum. They are probably where most Egyptians are. They like Islam, they like Islamic law, they’re religiously conservative. Whether we like it or not, all the polling suggests that’s where most Egyptians are. But they are very pragmatic and they have really shown their ability to compromise on their ideas and ideals for political gain. And they’ve done that time and time again. And to be honest, they’re kind of flip floppers too. One day, they’ll be trying to get closer to the military, other times they’ll be attacking the military and trying to undermine military control. Sometimes they’ll move to the right and try to make nice with the Salafis. Other times, they’ll try to move to the center and gain the support of independents and liberals. The brotherhood can be everything to everyone. That’s the way it sees itself. It’s very flexible in that regard. But that actually causes problems for them sometimes because what liberals will say is that, even though they have nice rhetoric and they have a moderate face, you can’t really trust them because they go with the political winds and do whatever it takes to preserve their organizational interests. But I think the main point here is that these are not irrational fanatics. These are people who know how to play politics; they’ve been doing it for decades. And you can talk to them. The U.S. can have a rational, productive conversation with them. It may be contentious and there will be serious points of disagreements but they’re a known quantity. I think by now there’s enough scholarship and research done on the brotherhood. It’s not this mysterious organization anymore. The Salafis though are a bit different because they only came onto the political scene in the past nine months. Before Egypt’s revolution, salafis did not participate in elections because they thought that only God should pass laws, not an elected parliament. So they had theological objections to it. They’ve engaged in some creative gymnastics to justify their entry into the political scene now. But they are new, they’re political novices and that’s why it’s so surprising that after having no presence in elections for decades, they’ve been able to be the second largest block.
WRIGHT: What would the Salafis like Egypt to look like?
HAMID: They like Islamic law, they want to implement it, they believe in legal coercion. That’s the big difference. The brotherhood believes more in leading by example and not necessarily imposing things aggressively. They have a much more gradualist approach to Islamic law. They’re not in a rush. The brotherhood is very patient, very cautious. They can wait.
WRIGHT: So what they have in common, by virtue of the definition of Islamists, is that they think that the country should be run according Islamic law. But you’re saying their conceptions of Islamic law differ.
HAMID: They’re conceptions are different but there’s a difference between believing that the country should be governed according to Islamic law or by Islamic law.
WRIGHT: What is the difference?
HAMID: You could argue that the vast majority of laws on the books of Egypt now do not explicitly contradict Islamic law. That’s fine. The Salafis have a more affirmative notion of the role of Islamic law. Things have to actively be done to push Egypt in that direction. And the other thing too…I’ve been meeting with brotherhood activists and leaders since 2006 on a regular basis and I’ve had very interesting conversations with them about what they consider to be Islamic law. They’re not entirely sure. I mean a lot of this is them learning as they go along. They’ve been in the opposition for 80 years. They’ve never given a lot of thought to what it means to govern. So in a sense, this is a very new realm for them. And if you ask them: “what does it mean to implement Islamic law in Egypt’s current context?” you’ll get very different answers from brotherhood members and they won’t always be coherent. They do have a general desire for Egypt to become more Islamic or “Islamized” but they don’t necessarily have a clear roadmap of how to get there.