The rise of Islamist parties in Egypt’s elections



After the overthrowing of dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has had its first round of parliamentary elections, with two parties dominating the vote – the moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the religious conservative party, Al-Nour.

As voting continues, I spoke with Middle East expert, Anthony Billingsley to understand how Egypt has gone from a secular revolution to voting for parties dominated by religion.

Why did the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour perform so well?


After the overthrow of Mubarak a number of forces emerged. One was the secular largely youth group of political activists who are new to the scene and who, therefore, had very little chance to organise themselves into coherent meaningful political parties before the elections.

This left the field very much to those organisations that had some sort of presence, organisation, recognition, history in Egypt. And that was very much the Muslim Brotherhood. It also included some people from the Mubarak regime who have also done reasonably well in the elections and also the Salafi group, the Al-Nour party.

So the problem was that those who were organised were able to deal with the early elections and those new to the scene struggled. And part of the problem that we saw over the last couple of weeks was people trying to slow the process down so that they’d have a better chance of establishing themselves as parties.

Are either of these parties truly extremist Islamist movements?

We’ve got to be careful using the word “extremist”. I think it’s better to talk in terms of conservative and very conservative because I don’t think either of the parties that we’re talking about, the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood, are interested in terrorist activity and “extremist” implies that.

The Muslim Brotherhood seems, and there’s an element of uncertainty about them because they have had a violent and extreme past, but they seem to have moved quite dramatically into what could be described as middle class politics with an Islamist colouration if you like.

So they are going to dominate. It’s been clear all along that they would be the dominant party and it looks like they’ve won something like 40% of the vote.

The Salafis, or the Al-Nour party (“Salafi” just means people who harken back to the olden days, so they have this imaginary image of what life was like at the time of the Prophet). Their image of what life should be like is very drear and dull, but they’re not necessarily going to be attacking other groups. So it’s a conservative rather than extremist group.

Should the rise of these two parties be of concern?

If you put those two groups together you have something like 60% of the seats in the parliament which would be very worrying to a very large proportion of the population and the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood has said very specifically it will not ally itself with Al-Nour. But the problem I think there is just the presence of this right-wing Islamist party in the parliament may force the Muslim Brotherhood to move a little bit to the right. Or it could highlight divisions in the Muslim Brotherhood.

So there is the risk that Salafis, just by their existence and the fact that they have done very well, will affect the nature of the politics over the coming months.

The movement that overthrew Mubarak was seen as secular, why have the Islamist groups been so dominant in the elections? Is there a natural inclination for a Muslim nation to vote for them?

The demonstrations and the movement, if you like, were very secular. I think that was very clear and initially the Muslim Brotherhood kept out of it. They didn’t know how to deal with it I think. But the point I made earlier, there was recognition, people know what the Muslim Brotherhood is – the voting paper had hundreds of names on it.

But I think it shouldn’t be surprising that parties in the Middle East will have a Islamic tinge to them, just as in Europe we had Christian Democrat parties from World War II onwards.

So the same thing, you have a society that is 90% Muslim, their political parties and their thinking is going to be in various ways influenced by Islam. And I don’t think that in that there’s anything unusual or necessarily worrying for us.

The West always says it wants democracy in the Middle East but when people do vote, they almost always vote in Islamist parties. How should the West respond to this?

Obviously the West is going to be looking at it quite closely but I don’t think there’s any inherent danger in it. I fear that the West, or in fact the United States is going to continue to meddle in the region and that this could have all sorts of implications.

So for example, the US has considerable influence on the Egyptian military through the funding that it provides. They may be, I don’t know, but they may be encouraging the military just to hold out, to try and retain an element of power after the elections are completed. That would be, I think, dangerous.

I think there’s going to have to be an element of acceptance that, if you’re going to have a democratic system, there’s going to be tensions and that sort of thing but I suspect they’re going to be contained within Egypt. They’re not going to spill out over into the rest of the world, so we need to give the Egyptians the chance to get their house in order.

After these elections, how do you see Egypt’s role in the region? Will it maintain peace with Israel?

I think it probably will be a force for good in the region, although Americans might not agree with that interpretation. I think you’re going to find the country less compliant with American demands, less willing to see continued American policies towards Palestine followed for example.

And we’ve seen this already. We’ve seen the Egyptians assisting in the unification talks between Hamas and Fatah. We’re seeing a different set of policies towards Turkey and to Iran, and I think in all those cases, Egypt is going to be more independent and that’s going to be less comforting for the Americans, but that’s too bad.

As far as Israel is concerned, I think the Muslim Brotherhood would love to take the peace treaty and tear it up. And most Egyptians too, I think something like around 54% of Egyptians don’t support the peace treaty.

Now on the other hand, the Egyptian army has fought Israel on a number of occasions and has been defeated every time. I don’t think they have any desire to go to war with Israel.

There will likely be an even cooler relationship but on the other hand, one that will reflect the interests of Egyptians.

In the long run I think the elections will result in a more confident and independent Egypt, but also a country that is focused on its domestic, economic and social problems.