A country’s first free and fair elections are always historic. That of Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world and spearhead of the recent jasmine revolts, are historic for both the country and the world. The Egyptian election works on several levels. There is the obvious example of having the largest Arab country hold an election notable for its minimal turmoil and violence. Then there is the additional success of having the election won by a member of the conservative Islamicist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The future rather than the present of Egyptian democracy will be of even greater import to the world. If Egypt makes a success of its new political circumstances, the ramifications would be enormous. The Muslim Brotherhood is arguably the oldest and most widespread Islamicist political movement in the Arab world. In the past, they were associated with armed struggle against various Arab dictatorships and Israel. With the newly- elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood is now in a position to show it can evolve into a mature party that can be trusted to run a country as a respectable member of the international community.
The Brotherhood has so far been remarkable. Morsi has spoken of the need to preserve the rights of non-Muslim minorities. His party has rolled back talk of banning alcohol, bikinis and similar regressive actions. There is evidence that the Brotherhood has recognised their long-term future lies in building Egypt’s political institutions and processes, even if that means tolerating liberal social norms. This reflects the pragmatic bent of the Brotherhood’s core supporters of professionals and small businessmen. And even the party’s ideologues must recognise that winning half the vote on a turnout of half the electorate is not a sweeping mandate for regression.
The real concern now is less democracy in the sense of holding elections and more democracy in the sense of constitutional power. The Egyptian military power and the judiciary, both staffed with holdovers of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, have stripped the presidency of much of its authority and declared the newly-elected parliament null and void. The new president has already signalled his intention to be sworn in by the same parliament in what is likely to be a series of contests between the Brotherhood and the ancien regime.
International pressure is needed to see that some compromise can be reached between the two sides so that they do not wreck the country’s fragile political institutions and the process of writing its new constitution. But, ultimately, what is most desired is that the moderating influence of electoral politics be allowed to work its magic. And this means letting President Morsi govern in both spirit and letter and the Brotherhood learn governance by having both authority and responsibility in its hands.