Egypt poised to elect an Islamist president

Barry Rubin Director, GLORIA Center
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What might well be the most significant election in Middle Eastern history is about to be held, yet the situation and its implications are simply not understood abroad.

Egypt’s presidential election is scheduled for May 23-24, with a probable run-off on June 16-17. Voters in Egypt, the most important country in the Arabic-speaking world, are almost certainly going to vote for a revolutionary transformation that will ensure that their country is rocked by continuous earthquakes of war, suffering and instability for decades to come.

Of the dozen candidates, only three are important. The question is which of them will end up in the run-off.

1. Mohamed el-Mursi is the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

2. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh is a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who resigned to run for president.

3. Amr Moussa is a radical nationalist who combines being an anti-American, anti-Israel demagogue with some real experience in government and some sense of realism and restraint.

There are also, among the more serious of the also-rans, a leftist, an old regime supporter, three liberals and another Islamist.

The mainstream Western view of the election is bizarre and very damaging. In this fantasy, Aboul Fatouh is portrayed as the liberal candidate. If he wins, everything will be just fine and dandy. You can go back to sleep.

What evidence is adduced for this picture? Basically, none. The idea is that Aboul Fatouh proved his moderation by defying the Brotherhood to run for the office. Yet the reality is the exact opposite. The Brotherhood had refused to run a candidate because it was following a cautious strategy, in an attempt to show that it wasn’t seeking total power and could coexist — at least for five years — with a non-Islamist president. By declaring his candidacy, Aboul Fatouh was in fact taking a more radical approach. (Later, after the Brotherhood won nearly half of the seats in Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood became more aggressive.) Most important of all, Aboul Fatouh is the candidate endorsed by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based anti-American, anti-Semitic hardliner. Qaradawi would never endorse a “moderate,” much less a “liberal.”

There are three factors likely to determine the first round:

1. The proportion of Muslim Brotherhood (parliamentary) voters who support Mursi. Perhaps a quarter or more of the Egyptians who voted for the Brotherhood last fall did so not so much because they wanted an Islamic state but because they thought the Brotherhood was more honest, would govern better and so on. Will they stick with the Brotherhood for the presidency or will they go for Aboul Fatouh or even Moussa?

2. Having no candidate of their own, who will the Salafi support? Since their goal is to provide a more radical alternative to the Brotherhood, some — but not all — of the Salafi leaders will probably go for Aboul Fatouh. But what about the Salafi voters who have almost no organizational loyalty — in contrast to the Brotherhood voters — and will presumably support the man they see as the one with the most radical Islamist vision? Few of these people will back Moussa.

3. Who will support Moussa? There is no nationalist bloc in Egypt today. Might Moussa emerge as the secularist candidate uniting those voters (only 25 percent of the electorate) who don’t want Islamism? No. The Christians and liberals don’t look at Moussa as their man and will probably split their vote among three competing liberal candidates who don’t have a chance.

The result may well be an Islamist versus Islamist run-off. In any event, it is likely that by the end of the year Egypt will have an Islamist president, parliament and constitution. Laws will be drastically altered, women’s rights will disappear and Hamas will be backed up if it attacks Israel.

Once in power, an Islamist government will eventually appoint Islamists to run the military, the religious establishment, the schools and the courts. Those who don’t like it will head for the West in droves.

The alliance with America will end. The new government will signal to the region that this is the era of revolutionary Islamism and jihad, at a time when America is weak or even — as many moderate Arabs believe — siding with the Islamists.

Western leaders are not prepared for this revolution, an upheaval that will rival or exceed the 1979 Iranian Revolution for its impact.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and Middle East editor for PJ Media. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.