When Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power a year ago many feared that he would be replaced by a radical regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood that would move Egypt towards an Iranian style theocracy and break the peace treaty with Israel. A year later the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamic party, has indeed gained the largest number of seats in the new parliament (over 40%) and is likely to dominate the next government but the Brotherhood has proven to be both cautious and restrained. It has promised to respect women and minority Coptic Christian rights, encourage Western tourism (critical to the economy), keep the treaty with Israel and it has worked with the Egyptian army to try to maintain law and order. Indeed some critics of the Brotherhood now claim it has in effect agreed to share power with the army to keep the revolution contained.
If the Brotherhood has proven to be more pragmatic than some feared and others predicted, the real surprise in Egypt in the last year has been the electoral success of the Brotherhood’s rivals in the Islamist movement. The salafist movement lead by the Nour Party got over twenty percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, a stunning success for a movement almost unknown a year ago. Salafis promote a very fundamental vision of Islam much like that practiced in Saudi Arabia. The salafis and the Brotherhood are old enemies; the salafis have long accused the Brotherhood of being too soft and moderate, and of being too willing to compromise on critical social issues like segregating the sexes and tolerating the sale of alcohol. The salafis also take a more radical line on foreign policy, one leader has even said that Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian leader of al Qaeda, should be welcomed to come home as a hero. Others have stressed, however, that they too will respect the treaty with Israel even though they don’t like it.
The salafis success suggests that the Egyptian street is much more Islamist than many outsiders assumed and that the Brotherhood’s real challenge in governing Egypt will be to balance pressure from the army to protect its equities with pressure from its Islamic rivals to move Egypt towards a very conservative Islamic states. This difficult balance may open doors for liberal and secular parties in Egypt to work with the Brotherhood. Whoever is elected Egypt’s next President, most likely former Foreign Minister Amre Musa, will have his hands full with these contending interest groups.
The Nour Party is well positioned to benefit from any stumbles by the Brotherhood. If the economy fails to revive the salafists will benefit among the poor and blame the country’s problems on the army’s rapacity, the Brotherhood’s incompetence and the West’s failure to help Egyptians. In short, if the Brotherhood can’t run Egypt well, the radicals will ask for their chance next. They may benefit from splits within the Brotherhood under the surface between moderates and hard liners.
Barack Obama was right to urge Mubarak to step down and to press the army to avoid a bloodbath. He should keep the pressure on the army to stay in its barracks and get out of politics. The Obama administration last year also made the right decision to begin talking to the Brotherhood about its views and future programs. Now is the time to intensify engagement with all political parties in Egypt about the future of the Arab world’s most populous country. Egypt will set the standard for Arab politics in the next few years as we move from revolution to the much harder job of governance. America needs to find common ground with the Islamic mainstream or find itself without a key partner in Africa and Arabia. Patience and engagement is critical.