ANALYSIS | Islamists hold all the cards in Egyptian elections

Sasa Petricic writes that the question is no longer whether Egypt will have an Islamist government, but how extreme or moderate it will be.

Muslim Brotherhood the best West can hope for from fledgling democracy

The bright yellow campaign banners may be a stark contrast to the dusty streets. The slick political promises strangely out of place in a country where there haven't been free elections in more than half a century.

Still, the Muslim Brotherhood — through its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party — has shown itself to be the dominant force in Egypt's elections. It won half the seats in the first round of voting that began Nov. 28 and seems set to do very well again in the second and third rounds.

Little wonder. By far, it's the best-organized and best-financed party in Egypt. Its mosques, community centres, food banks, schools and clinics dot virtually every neighbourhood, making the Brotherhood a fixture in the lives of many Egyptians. Some even consider it a state within a state, offering services the government never could.

That influence — coupled with solid Islamist roots — worried Egypt's deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, who tried to limit the Brotherhood's political activities.

It still worries many in the West. After all, several terrorist movements, including al-Qaeda and Hamas, trace their roots to the Brotherhood. And yet, this organization is really the best those Western voices can hope for from Egyptian democracy right now.

Most Egyptians want Islamists in power

The largely secular parties — left, liberal or centrist — made a big impact around the world through their recent demonstrations in Tahrir Square, but they failed to inspire many voters here. Their message was confusing, their organization poor. Their coalitions shifted at a dizzying speed. Worse still, they lost many dedicated voters by telling them to boycott this election, one they consider open to manipulation by the generals in charge.

An old man casts his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Cairo. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

But their biggest problem is that most Egyptians really do want some form of Islamist leadership. And if this process turns out to be at all democratic, the only question is what kind: mild, moderate or what some Western liberals consider downright scary.

The fundamentalist Salafis have already frightened them. The Salafist Al-Nour Party surprised many in Egypt by winning 20 per cent of the seats in the first round of elections. They're likely to do even better as the vote moves from big cities like Cairo and Alexandria into the poorer, more religious rural areas in the second and third rounds.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis make no attempt to hide their support for Shariah law — of the strictest kind. Under a Salafi government, thieves would get their hands cut off, adulterers would be stoned, women and non-Muslims would have precious few rights and alcohol would be banned. One Salafi faction brought out hundreds of demonstrators to protest the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. soldiers in May 2011.

Muslim moderates

By comparison, the Muslim Brotherhood has gone to great lengths to project a moderate image. Its membership has large numbers of professionals: doctors, lawyers and accountants — conservatives who are more likely to campaign in dark business suits than in traditional Egyptian dress.

Sobhi Saleh, right, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and candidate for parliament, speaks to voters at a polling station in Alexandria. The Brotherhood has taken pains to appear moderate. Its candidates are largely conservative professionals who don suits and ties rather than traditional dress. (Tarek Fawzy/Associated Press)

And they come with carefully prepared speaking notes.

Yes, their laws would be based on the spirit of Shariah, several of them told me, but they would incorporate respect and equal rights for everyone, women included. (Although they did add that women would have primary responsibility for the home.) Judges and courts would be fair and independent. Democracy would trump religious extremism, they said.

Neither group is keen on continued close relations with Israel (indeed, polls show very few Egyptians are). But the Muslim Brotherhood has said it would honour international treaties signed by Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. The surging Salafis? Likely not.

Of course, it is too early to know exactly how any of these movements would act in government. How would they balance competing interests and the pressures of running a country with high unemployment and a devastated economy? Would they even be given free rein to govern by a military that seems determined to prevent anything it considers religious extremism?

Maybe not.

But if the first few steps toward democracy in the region's most populous country show anything, it's that the biggest debate will be between Islamists.

Western liberals might be surprised to find whom they're cheering for.