Who are the 40%?

The Islamist win in Egypt confirms a trend. Religious absolutism is now out of the equation: people are empowered to determine their political leaders and their institutions.
Ahmed E. Souaiaia
25 January 2012

Two days before the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak out on February 11, 2011, the newly elected members of the Egyptian parliament (Majlis al-sha`b) convened for the first time and endorsed a member of the Muslim Brethren as speaker. Saad al-Katatni was elected on Monday receiving 399 votes out of 498 cast (80%).

The 59 year old botany professor was elected to the current parliament as the representative from the province of Minya (south of Cairo). However, he is not new to politics. Katatni is a seasoned legislator who served as the leader of the Muslim Brethren parliamentary bloc between 2005 and 2010, when they ran as independents because, then, the Islamist movement was not allowed to field candidates directly.

Szczekociny festival poster

The Egyptian results, compared to those of similar elections in Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, and Turkey suggest that in any fair and transparent elections in the Islamic world, Islamist parties and their affiliates can easily win at least 40% of the votes. In fact, in the case of Egypt, Islamist parties together won over 77% of the seats. These results can be used as predictors of future elections in other Arab and Islamic countries in the area. Arguably, if fair elections were to be held in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, Islamists are likely to win 40% or more of the votes. The question, then, is no longer whether Islamists could win a majority in elections, but which strain of Islamism and by how much.  

Bar Graph

By all accounts, the elections in Egypt were unprecedented. More than 30 million people voted (over 60% of the eligible voters), and more than ten million of them voted for the party of the Muslim Brethren, the Freedom and Justice Party (al-Hurriyya wa-‘l-adala). This margin of victory allows that party to govern without needing to form a coalition with any of the major parties. The party won 127 seats through the party list and 108 individual seats for a total of 235 seats. The parliament consists of 498 elected members, ten appointed, for a total of 508 seats. They only need about 20 seats to establish a governing majority. Therefore, the Freedom and Justice Party has many options to form a majority government.

Pie chart showing seats by party

The FJP could enter into a coalition with al-Nur, the Salafi party that came second after winning 24% of the votes, a result that surprised most observers. The FJP could also merge with another Islamist party, the Center Party (al-Wasat), which won 10 seats, and attract some of the independent members. Alternatively, it can enter into a governing coalition with both Islamist parties, a move that will heighten secular politicians’ anxiety. The so-called liberal parties combined won a mere 15% of the seats, led by the oldest party, al-Wafd, which came in third after securing 38 seats. However, despite the weak performance of al-Wafd, the FJP might be inclined to enter into a coalition with it instead of one or both of the Islamist parties, which it considers direct competitors.

Regardless of the coalition choices the FJP may make in the next few days, this body of elected representatives will be tested as it faces a host of problems during this transition period. Importantly, the leaders of the parliament must appoint a committee consisting of one hundred members tasked with drafting the new constitution. The FJP will face pressure from the right as well as from the left.

The ultraconservative al-Nur party, whose supporters have generally shunned democracy as un-Islamic, will most likely push for the inclusion of explicit language about the shari`ah being the main source of law in the new constitution. Liberal politicians and western governments will advocate for a constitution that favours secularism. It is likely that a compromise will be struck that will enshrine shari`ah as a main source of law. Short of that, and if leaders of the parliament cannot reach consensus on this and other critical issues, the military would be likely to intervene - a scenario favored by a number of military leaders.

One thing is certain however: the next Egyptian president will not be allowed to consolidate power the way Mubarak and his predecessors did in the past. The Muslim Brethren implicitly endorsed such a plan. First, immediately after the fall of the regime, that party announced that they will not field a presidential candidate. The move was interpreted as reassurance to the Egyptian public and foreign governments that they are not interested in a power grab. True as that may be, their actions did not mean that they are uninterested in the position. Rather, they are interested in reforming it. Second, all indications show that the Muslim Brethren favours a ceremonial presidential position and a strong government under the oversight of the parliament. Ultimately, this divested-power model might benefit Egyptian society, which has suffered under authoritarian rule since independence. It may also promote the emergence of the autonomous civil society institutions necessary for accountable government.

The most important achievement of these elections, however, remains the embrace of the electoral paradigm for the determination of political legitimacy. Indeed, the ban on Islamists in the past turned them into political martyrs. The Salafis’ rejection of democracy attempted to discredit the representative governance model. Now, the participation of more than one Islamist group in local and national elections takes religious absolutism out of the equation and empowers peoples to determine their political leaders and institutions; that in and by itself is a step in the right direction.


Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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