Following the first post-revolution parliamentary elections in Egypt, many Egyptians became extremely alarmed about the real prospect of their country becoming fully controlled by Islamists who had just won more than 80 percent of the seats. Also, this initial sweeping victory compelled many Islamists themselves to assert that they were the true representatives of almost all the Egyptian people, and it created a challenge for the efforts of the ruling military council to keep the country secular.
The subsequent poor performance of many elected Islamists in parliament resulted in a significant decline in their popularity. This became evident in the first round of the presidential elections when Islamist candidates combined garnered only about 25 percent of the vote. This percentage roughly represents the proportion of Islamists who would want to implement Sharia law, as well as those people who voted for Islamists because of the social benefits they promised to provide.
These numbers, obviously, came as a shock to Islamists themselves and they gave the ruling military, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the latitude and the comfort it needed to issue a constitutional declaration stripping Islamists of the powers they had gained.
Thus, the Islamist-dominated parliament found itself dissolved, the SCAF assumed legislative powers and gave itself a big say in the drafting of Egypt’s the next constitution. The latter point is considered vital for the future of the country as Islamists – after their initial 80 percent victory – strived to fully take control of the drafting of the new constitution so as to pave the way for making Egypt an Islamic state based on Sharia law.
Contrary to what many people might believe, the results of the Egyptian presidential runoff election that gave Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi 51.7 percent of the vote were actually an indication that Morsi prevailed not because of the Islamist vote, but because secularists had no real alternative candidate to vote for.
In the first round, Morsi got around 5.5 million votes. If he picked up an additional four million votes won by first-round moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the maximum Morsi could have garnered was about 9.5 million votes. The fact that he received around 13 million votes compared to old regime candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who won 12.5 million votes, demonstrates that some 3.5 million liberals voted for Morsi just to prevent Shafiq from winning.
This created a scenario in which an Islamist president was put in power by liberal votes. In any other election, the millions of liberal votes would have gone to a liberal candidate.
Yet this new balance of power assigns liberals a role much more prominent and influential than previously thought. Furthermore, it will make it more difficult for Islamists to push the country towards becoming an Islamic state and it will probably force Morsi to include more secularists in his cabinet.
Additionally, the realization that liberal votes played a crucial role in Morsi’s win gives many liberals – for the first time since the beginning of the Islamic revival in Egypt that started in late 1970s – the confidence to fight back attempts by Islamists to gain control of the country. This can be seen clearly now in the current anti-Islamist wave in Egyptian social media and in the formation of new movements protecting women from Salafists who are trying to force them to wear the hijab.
Unlike after the first post-revolution elections, when Islamists dominated the political scene, the current situation will force Morsi to seek broad-based support from all segments of the population as he simply needs the support from liberals to survive politically.
If Morsi fails to make significant improvements in the lives of average Egyptians early on in his presidency, this will further weaken the Islamist’s power in the country.
Additionally, if Morsi tries at any time to impose a Sharia way of life on Egyptians depriving people of many of their personal freedoms, the millions of liberals who supported him because they wanted to vote against Shafiq will be sufficient to bring him down.
In an early attempt to appease liberals, Morsi announced that he will appoint a woman as a vice president for the first time in the history of modern Egypt. This gesture, however, while appealing, may not mean much as what matters will be the views of the woman vice president, not her gender. For example, a male vice president who believes in women’s rights would be far better for Egyptian women than an Islamist female VP like Azza al-Garf who supports an Islamic agenda that would not only deprive women of their basic human rights but reinstitute such practices as female genital circumcision.
In conclusion, the new balance of power in Egypt, in which the military and liberals have a greater share in governing, is much healthier politically than the virtual domination by Islamists we saw following parliamentary elections – domination which not only gave them an overwhelming influence over the legislature, but also almost exclusive control over the constitution drafting process. But several variables remain– first and foremost the economy – which can still significantly affect this balance of power and thus the future of the country as a whole.
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Dr. Tawfik Hamid is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He is currently a Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.