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Egypt's Islamist Tsunami

Nina Shea

It turns out my colleague Sam Tadros was right on the mark in his prognostication of the first phase of the Egyptian parliamentary elections. On Tuesday, he predicted:

The question is not whether the Islamists will win, but what the size of their victory is going to be. Contrary to the earlier narrative propagated by the Western media, the Islamist victory will not be in the 3040 percent range. It is quite apparent to anyone that has been paying attention that their victory will be nothing short of a tsunami.

As the New York Times is reporting this morning, in an article headlined, “Islamists Claim Mandate in Early Voting,” preliminary calculations of the results from the first of three phases of voting for the parliament indicate that assorted Islamists have won a whopping 65 percent of the seats that were voted on this week. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the Times labels the “mainstream” Islamist group, appears to have garnered 40 percent, while the “ultraconservative,” Taliban-like Salafis captured 15 percent.

This is only a preliminary analysis of the first round of voting (Sam will have more to say on this once the votes are officially counted and public), and the final results will not be known until January. However, subsequent voting is expected to show even more dire results for non-Islamists. As Sam has already explained, the non-Islamists will perform better in the first stage than they will in the overall results because this phase includes the big cities of Cairo and Alexandria, which include non-traditional populations that are not representative of more rural areas.

Remember the Gallup poll last June finding that “only 15 percent of Egyptians said that they support the Muslim Brotherhood, while more than 60 percent showed no political preference”? Then, the AP opined: “The results appeared to counter a widely held view that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the main winner in [Egypt’s] parliamentary elections.”

Well, last summer’s polling was wrong, later Western media predictions doubling the Brotherhood support were also wrong, and now, barring a military crackdown, Egypt is on the trajectory for an Isalmist constitution and Islamist rule.

What does this mean for individual rights and freedoms? The New York Times‘s David D. Kirkpatrick reports:

The Brotherhood has pledged to respect basic individual freedoms while using the influence of the state to nudge the culture in a more traditional direction. But the Salafis often talk openly of laws mandating a shift to Islamic banking, restricting the sale of alcohol, providing special curriculums for boys and girls in public schools, and censoring the content of the arts and entertainment.

Like the pre-vote predictions of the Western media, it too misses the point.

Egypt’s Islamist landslide is likely to result in the attempt to coerce through lawful and/or extra-judicial punishments apostasy and blasphemy codes, which protect from criticism anything and anyone claiming to be Islamic, including quite likely criticism of the Islamist parliamentarians and governmental leaders themselves. The late Indonesian president and renowned Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid strenuously opposed such punishments because they “narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse . . . not only about religion, but about vast spheres of life, literature, science and culture in general.” As noted by the 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report, commenting on the fact that more foreign books had been translated by Spain in one recent year than by the entire Arabic-speaking world in the last thousand: “In Arab countries where the political exploitation of religion has intensified, tough punishment for original thinking, especially when it opposes the prevailing powers, intimdates and crushes scholars.“ It might have also added journalists, teachers, human-rights activists, and many others.

For example, in an Islamist-controlled Egypt, punishments could be meted out to those who dissent from proposals or de facto efforts to revoke women’s rights or equal citizenship rights for Coptic Christians, the establishment of religious police, the enforcement of sharia, or the screening of political candidates for religious correctness all real examples from other countries. Based on the survey of contemporary Islamic speech codes I recently completed with Paul Marshall, this list could be virtually endless. Muslim Brotherhood campaign promises aside, the real test of freedom will hinge on the resolve of Egypt’s newly elected leaders to resist attempts from at least some among them to instate a legally based blasphemy regime, in whole or in part, and to curb efforts to impose one outside the law by Islamists willing to use violence. The trend in the Muslim world, based on the fatwas and action steps of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an international group of 56 member states that claims to speak for Islam, is to push for such codes, not resist them.

The implications of an Islamist mandate is a great deal more far-reaching than would be suggested by today Times article (however drastic the impact of alcohol and entertainment bans would be for the Times‘s foreign correspondents). Fundamental individual freedoms of religion and speech and democracy itself are all at risk.

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