What many saw as a revolutionary conflict at Tahrir Square fizzled away yesterday as an astonishing (and peaceful) turnout of Eygptians all over the country demonstrated their preference for voting over Molotov cocktails and strikes. Although much too early for final results in the multi-round Egyptian election process to be clear, observers from all over the country reported signs that the Muslim Brotherhood was receiving heavy support.
This is more or less the way we thought this would go at Via Meadia; the mostly liberal crowds in Tahrir don’t have enough following in either the poor neighborhoods of Cairo or the rural agricultural areas. There was simply no way that Egypt’s twitterati could compete against a military government offering the freest elections Egyptians have ever known. As expected, the Brotherhood’s extensive connection with communities gave it the highest visibility among voters.
But now the tricky part begins. The military and the Brotherhood have been the two strongest forces in Egypt for almost sixty years since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. Thus far, the military has been number one; the Brotherhood has been held at arm’s length, feeding itself on dreams. But now the Brotherhood wants to do more, and it can: early results put Brotherhood candidates winning as many as 40 percent of the seats in the new parliament. The Brotherhood’s position is stronger than in the past; over decades, it has built up credibility across Egypt even as state institutions became more corrupt and even less effective than usual. Much of the Egyptian public has been moving toward closer identification with and practice of Islam for some time, and younger officers in the armed forces themselves are more Islamist than in the past.
However the Army is not without some cards to play. It has links to wealthy businessmen, many of them Copts. It has national prestige; the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Israel ended badly, but initial Egyptian attacks were the most successful Arab efforts against Israel. No other army in the Arab world can point to anything like it (save in Algeria where the army claims the legacy of the successful revolution against the French). Even today, the bulk of Egyptian society considers the military a bulwark of stability and the custodian of national pride.
It is not clear what kind of government the Brotherhood will seek to establish. There are opposing factions divided along clan loyalties, regional lines, and theological tendencies — including Salafi and modernist wings. As Michael Totten writes today for The American Interest, the Brotherhood is splintering. Many young members have quit. Within the remaining organization, three groups are becoming distinctly visible: “The first is the old hard core that predates the 1970s. The second consists of those who joined up in college and took the Brotherhood’s ideas into civil society and professional organizations. The third is the youth. It is the younger members—those who are technologically savvy and have more exposure to Western and other foreign ideas—who are most likely to leave.”
Additionally, the “deep state” still has power to make people rich and do a lot of favors. A recent Wall Street Journal article illustrates the influence still commanded by former politicians and powerful clans, even if they were associated with the Mubarak regime:
“Abu Talab’s father was very powerful, anything you needed, he would give you,” said one of the farmers, Taha Abu Shaaban, 40 years old. “He was in the ruling party, but the people loved him”…“[The] Egyptian Election is based on individuals with strong tribal and family connections rather than on ideologies or programs of parties, and the only exception to this is the Islamist voters,” said Mr. Mahmoud, the head of the Hurriya Party, which includes ex-Mubarak regime members from around the country and who is also a candidate from a prominent family from southern Egypt. “It doesn’t it matter if I was a part of the ruling regime. Even if I was a member of the Israeli Likud, I would still win.”
It will be interesting to see which way the liberals jump. The military is likely to show a little liberal ankle as it seeks to consolidate allies against the Muslim Brotherhood after the election; some Copts may seek a deal with the Brotherhood reasoning it will be easier if they cooperate and that the Brotherhood is the strongest possible bastion against the real threat from the Salafis. Others are likely to side with the military.
But the background for everything is going to be continued hard times for most Egyptians. Egypt is unlikely to prosper no matter who governs it. The combination of instability in Egypt and financial turmoil in Europe is killing the tourism industry. As the AP tells us:
Egypt’s tourism sector has accounted for roughly 10 percent of gross domestic product and employs Egyptians in a range of supporting industries — from guides and camel touts to hotel workers and artisans.“Most shops have either let go of most of their employees or cut their salaries by at least 50 percent,” said Khaled Osman, who owns a shop near the pyramids employing about 20 people. Since the revolution, the unemployment rate has climbed to almost 12 percent in the third quarter of 2011, compared to just shy of 9 percent a year earlier.If the uprising that pushed Mubarak from power marked the start of the industry’s demise for the year, then the latest protests in Tahrir Square have further cemented the losses.
Economic growth from has fallen from seven percent to under two; interest rates are up and foreign investment is down.
The Muslim Brotherhood, well aware that a bad economy will torpedo any hopes it has of building long term political power, has embarked on a charm offensive to attract foreign business. As Mariam Fam writes for Bloomberg,
The party adopts a largely pro-market platform, supporting private enterprise and promising to create jobs by directing more investment toward industries, agriculture and information technology. Aware of fears surrounding its political ascent after decades of suppression, officials of the once-banned Brotherhood, some accomplished businessmen in their own right, have been greeting investors and bankers at their offices with business-friendly messages.
The fate of Egypt will be decided in the markets; if tourists return, if Europe avoids a collapse, if food prices are low, Egypt may have the time it needs for the military, the Muslims, the liberals and the Copts to reach a new accommodation on relatively favorable terms. If none of these things happen and the masses go hungry, we could see many more people on the march. These people won’t be twittering liberal human rights activists and their protests won’t be confined to Tahrir Square and its surrounding streets.