An Islamist edge in Egypt vote

Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood reneged on pledges not to contest more than 30 percent of parliamentary seats and not to field a candidate for president. AMR NABIL / Associated Press, File)

CAIRO — In Tahrir Square, the only reminders of last year’s Arab Spring are a handful of tattered tents and the hawkers who sell leftover trinkets from the revolution.

Many secular Egyptians who once demanded democracy now fear that they ousted a secular autocracy only to see it replaced with an Islamic one — ushered in by the ballot. Yet the liberals, leftists, and moderate Muslims who organized the revolt failed to do the one thing that would block an Islamist victory — unite around a single candidate for the presidency in the first round of elections on Wednesday and Thursday.

“We made a revolution only to go now from one dictatorship to another,” is the gloomy prediction of telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who bankrolled liberal and leftist secular parties that emerged during the Arab Spring. (In response, the still-powerful military, hostile to liberals, harassed him and his family.)

Sawiris says that if democrats had formed one coalition and endorsed a single candidate, “people would have had a clear idea of what we wanted” in terms of the economy and social justice. He says such a candidate certainly could have made it into a runoff election for the top two vote-getters, scheduled for June.

Instead, the political newcomers who emerged from the revolution promoted their own candidacies or started their own splinter parties. The splits among the Tahrir Square rebels make it possible for an Islamist to win.

This prospect is sobering because of the sharp veer to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood, an 82-year-old group that had been banned from politics for years but now seems eager to take over just about every government institution.

Once violent, the group has long espoused a peaceful, long-term path to establishing an Islamic state. Its tightly organized leadership had pledged that it would not contest more than 30 percent of parliamentary seats — and would not field a candidate for president. Egyptian journalists and ex-Brotherhood members tell me the group’s leaders made a deal with the military to operate within limits.

But the Brotherhood quickly reneged on all its pledges. It contested almost all parliamentary districts and won 47 percent of the seats, in large part because of its extensive network of members and social service projects in rural areas. And it set its sights even higher when the ultraconservative Islamist Nour party unexpectedly won an additional 25 percent of the seats, giving Islamists an overwhelming majority.

“The Muslim Brotherhood became too greedy,” says Hani Shukrallah, the English online editor for the daily Al-Ahram newspaper. “Their tone changed when they realized how weak everyone else was.”

Soon the Brothers sought to monopolize the drafting committee for a new constitution. It then named a presidential candidate and faced down the military when challenged.

“They feel confident they are very near to taking over Egypt,” Sawiris says. “They have bullied the army, which has shown it doesn’t want to confront them.”

At huge political rallies, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, has become much more outspoken on the subject of Islamic sharia law — an issue that unnerves many Egyptian women, Coptic Christians, and moderate Muslims. “We will not accept any alternative to sharia,” he told supporters at a Cairo University rally. “The Quran is our constitution.”

Brotherhood political leaders talk of revoking a women’s legal right to divorce and extol the virtues of circumcising young girls — a dangerous and widely used practice that has been legally outlawed. The Brothers would presumably take control of the Interior Ministry if Morsi becomes president, and they are already wooing the police officer corps.

Liberals’ fears of an Islamist takeover may be exaggerated. Morsi will have to split the Islamist vote with an independent candidate, physician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood last year. The doctor is more moderate and has run a big-tent campaign, winning support from some liberals — and from the Salafist Nour party, which dislikes the Brothers. Some analysts here believe the Brothers’ overreach will alienate many religious voters.

And, for the many Egyptians who are desperate for a restoration of stability there are two secular candidates with ties to the past regime: former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Various polls have shown one or the other leading the race, although most Egyptian election polls are not considered reliable, and up to 40 percent of the voters are undecided.

Speculation is rife on whether Shafiq has the military’s backing. In these new times, however, it is unlikely that the voting can be massively rigged, even if the military desires it. Moussa and Shafiq will split the non-Islamist vote, while more of it is peeled off by Aboul Fotouh and by a Nasserite throwback named Hamdeen Sabahi, who sounds as if he’s still living in the 1960s.

Morsi’s strong suit is that he can draw on the Brotherhood’s network of followers all over the country. It has cadres who knock on doors and will use social networks and their sisterhood to woo rural voters.

If Egyptians tap an Islamist as president, it won’t mean the public wants an Islamic state, but it will mean the revolutionaries offered them no clear alternative. But whoever wins will then have to deliver the economic goods, or an empowered public won’t support him for long.

E-mail Trudy Rubin at

Trudy Rubin has covered the Middle East for 35 years and visited Egypt on many occasions. She lived there for six months during the rule of Anwar el-Sadat, who made peace with Israel. She’s now in Cairo to observe the historic Egyptian presidential election, and will be traveling to Beirut to report on events in Syria. Read her daily blog posts at