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Jan 13, 2012 | 13:08 GMT

5 mins read

Obstacles for Egypt's Islamists After Elections

Egypt's political factions are awaiting the results of the third round of lower house parliamentary elections, which are very likely to confirm that the country's two main Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist al-Nour party, have placed first and second in the voting and have a combined majority of seats. However, while the two Islamist parties will likely emerge from the elections governing Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still rules the country, and tensions persist between the political proxies of the Brotherhood and the Salafists. The FJP thus will need to balance the interests of the SCAF, the Salafists and Egyptian voters if it is to remain effective during the formation of the country's new government.

Egypt held the runoffs for the third and final round of parliamentary elections for its lower house Jan. 10-11. A supplementary phase and runoffs for postponed governorates will follow Jan. 14-19. The first two rounds of voting saw the country's main Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood's (MB's) Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Al-Nour party, in first and second place with 36.5 percent and 26.6 percent of the vote, respectively. Results of the third round of voting, as well as those of the two rounds of voting for upper house elections set for Jan. 29-Feb. 22, are expected to be similar, which would give these parties a combined majority in parliament.

If the FJP keeps its plurality of votes, it will become responsible for forming the first Egyptian government since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Al-Nour will have a presence in this government, but its role will depend on the political relationship of the two Islamist parties. (The FJP has previously insisted that it will not form a coalition with al-Nour). These elections show that Islamists have been given a legitimate role in Egyptian politics, but while they likely will emerge from the elections governing Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still maintains control of the country. Thus, the FJP will continue to take a cautious stance throughout the process of writing the new Egyptian Constitution, electing a president, and choosing a prime minister and Cabinet so as not to appear to be seeking too much power too fast.

The FJP's Political Position

As the party in power, the FJP will need to balance the interests of the SCAF with those of the Salafists. Its relationship with al-Nour will be based on identity politics. The MB and the Egyptian Salafists represent different segments of Egyptian society and are historical rivals, and this rivalry re-emerged during the campaign. The al-Nour party was originally part of the FJP-led Democratic Alliance political coalition when it first formed in July, but it later broke away amid accusations that the FJP was taking too many seats on the list for itself. It then formed a new list called the Islamist Bloc, the parties of which advocate a strict interpretation of Islam and a gradual transition to Sharia. During the polls, their supporters often clashed at polling sites, especially in Alexandria, the base of the Salafist movement.

Despite these tensions, the FJP may find it beneficial to come to a political middle ground with the Salafists, offering al-Nour political concessions such as symbolic ministerial appointments or legislation that would ease its insecurities. If the FJP offers al-Nour a deal, it will come in a form that keeps the two groups' identities and roles separate to avoid SCAF accusations of — and possible crackdowns over — an Islamist parliamentary monopoly. Operationally, the FJP will likely make gestures to keep the Salafists appeased and prevent them from being a major obstacle to political maneuverability. Making the effort to raise the minimum wage or offering more occupational benefits to laborers would cater to al-Nour's demographic base of poor urbanites while emphasizing the FJP's image of being representative of the people. On the exterior, the FJP will continue to project itself as the nonthreatening neutral player that serves as the uncorrupted alternative to the military regime and remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

On the other side of the FJP is the SCAF. The Muslim Brotherhood has learned how to avoid provoking the military at the grassroots level, but it does not have this experience in government. (Many MB leaders ran as independents in 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, but the organization as a whole still has limited political experience.) To appease the SCAF, the FJP must see to it that the military retains control over its economic and security interests. However, if the FJP considers the SCAF to be asking too much or threatening its own priorities, it continues to retain the ability to activate large-scale protests using the MB's wide-reaching support network.

The SCAF's Power Levers

The SCAF has an interest in separating parliament from the presidency because it will have to approach each branch in a different way when trying to manipulate the political environment to its own interests. It is not yet clear how it will approach the presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place by July 1, and the FJP has stressed that it has no interest in fielding its own candidate. However, the military does have experience exploiting extreme Islamist elements to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and it will apply this experience to parliament to achieve its goals — as evidenced by recent discussions between the SCAF and Salafist representatives. If this dialogue persists and al-Nour continues to win a significant portion of parliamentary seats, it will give the SCAF another way to check the influence of the FJP if its interests are challenged.

With the Egyptian Constitution yet to be written, it is unclear how much power the FJP will have, despite its apparent electoral victory. If it can successfully balance the interests of the SCAF, the Salafists and Egyptian voters, the FJP will be at an advantage during the formation of the new Egyptian government.

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