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Egypt, the Beginning or the End?

By Thomas Friedman | The New York Times | December 6, 2011 | 3 pages

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more fundamentalist Salafist Nour Party have garnered some 65 percent of the votes in the first round of Egypt’s free parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak should hardly come as a surprise. Given the way that the military regimes in the Arab world decimated all independent secular political parties over the last 50 years, there is little chance of any Arab country going from Mubarak to Jefferson without going through some Khomeini.

But whether this is the end of the Egyptian democracy rebellion, just a phase in it or an inevitable religious political expression that will have to coexist with the military and secular reform agendas remains to be seen. The laws of gravity, both political and economic, have yet to assert themselves on whoever will lead Egypt, which is why today I am in a listening and watching mode, with more questions than answers.


Have the more secular reform parties, who led the Tahrir Square revolutions earlier this year and last month, learned from their mistakes? According to a recent poll done by Charney Research for the International Peace Institute, when Egyptians were asked last month whether the Tahrir protests were necessary to achieve the goals of the revolution or unnecessary disruptions “at a time when Egypt needs stability and economic recovery,” 53 percent to 35 percent of Egyptians wanted to focus on economic recovery.

The more secular, pro-democracy reformist demonstrators, who revived the Tahrir protests last month, deserve credit for getting the Egyptian Army to limit its power grab. But that seems to have come at the expense of alienating some more traditional-minded Egyptian voters — who still cling to the army as a source of stability — and it seems to have hampered the secular reformists in preparing to compete in the first round of elections. The liberal Egyptian Bloc came in third with about 15 percent of the votes. Egypt’s secular reformers need to get more organized and unified.


Do the Egyptian Islamist parties, which could dominate a future cabinet, have any idea of how to generate economic growth at a time when the Egyptian economy is sinking? Egypt today is burning through about $1 billion in foreign currency reserves a month and is now down to $21 billion. The Egyptian pound has crumbled to a seven-year low. Youth unemployment is 25 percent. Egypt’s main foreign currency earner is tourism, bringing in $39 billion last year, and today hotel occupancy is way down.

But the main focus of the Salafists is not boosting the economy. It’s segregating the sexes, banning alcohol and ensuring that women are veiled. The Muslim Brotherhood has been less doctrinaire but is a long way from liberal. How will it be able to advance its fundamentalist religious/social mores when this could drive away Egypt’s biggest source of income, not to mention foreign direct investment, not to mention foreign assistance from the European Union and the U.S.?

I don’t know. I just know that a key reason the Khomeini forces were able to hang on for so long in Iran was because the ayatollahs had a huge, unending source of oil revenue with which to buy off their people and ignore the world. And even then they faced a popular revolt. Egypt does not have such resources. Its only hope for growth is still free-market capitalism — spawning companies and workers who can compete on the global market. Therefore, whoever inherits power in Egypt will have to deliver a less corrupt form of capitalism, with more competition, more privatization and fewer government jobs, at a time when the Egyptian economy is sinking.

As Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and reformist leader, told The Associated Press, “I think the Brotherhood in particular, and some of the Salafis, should send quickly messages of assurance both inside the country and outside the country to make sure that society continues to be cohesive, to make sure that investment will come in.”


Will Egypt follow the pattern of Iraq? Religious and sectarian parties in Iraq also swept its first elections, and, after they performed badly, the Iraqi public swung away from them toward more secular, pluralistic parties. Arab voters want a clean government that creates jobs and provides stability. Iraq also demonstrates that once fighting stops, and politics starts, all kinds of square dancing begins between secular and religious parties. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists are archenemies — there’s nothing like a fight within the faith — so who knows what coalitions will emerge.


The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have been living underground, focused largely on what they were both against and confined in their ideology to platitudes like “Islam is the answer.” Now that they are emerging from the Arab basement to the Arab street, they not only have to define what they are for but do it in the context of a highly competitive global economy that will leave Egypt’s 85 million people, about one-third of whom are illiterate, even further behind if they don’t get moving.

This will eventually require some wrenching ideological adjustments by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis to reality. This story is just beginning.

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