The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

The Cambridge Union Society Headshot

Why I'd Be Voting Islamist

Posted: Updated:

Ed Winfield is a Masters student at Peterhouse College, Cambridge writing his thesis on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The results of the first round of voting in the Egyptian presidential election were not good. To be more specific, they were very bad. The runoff will pit Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group already dominant in parliament, against Ahmed Shafik, a former commander of the air force and Mubarak's last prime minister.

In addition to the anxieties which these two candidates raise - and many have labelled the outcome a "nightmare" scenario - the struggle between the Brotherhood and the military has already paralysed Egypt's transition, leaving suspended both its constitution writing and, briefly, its parliament. Short-term stability is unlikely: the unrest which greeted the announcement of the result and the trial of Mubarak and his acolytes may be a sign of things to come.

It is the Brotherhood which has particularly raised fears: the first thing people ask me when I say I'm researching Egyptian politics is how quickly it's going to turn into an Iranian-style theocracy. Yet while the organisation's democratic credentials are questioned by many, such criticisms are baseless. The Brotherhood has for decades declared itself fully committed to democracy and pluralism. The other yardstick we have to judge it on beyond its words is its past action: since the 1980s, when it first engaged openly in politics, it has consistently respected democratic norms, or at least such as were possible under Mubarak.

Accusations that it will use democratic means to destroy Egypt's nascent democracy are only conjectures, therefore, and in addition they hugely simplify the composition of the group. It has 500,000 members drawn from all walks of life, ages, and political leanings; there are around three major generational divides and at least four ideological cleavages. To imagine a huge anti-democratic conspiracy among such a diverse group is fantastical. Indeed, more radical Islamists have left the group, either in the past to join underground splinters or more recently any of the numerous Salafi parties.

The other Western worry about the Brotherhood is that it would tear up the peace treaty with Israel. It certainly sometimes expresses fierce hostility towards Israel; on the other hand, the majority of Egyptian people probably share this sentiment - polls are mixed over support for the treaty, and most see Israel as a threat. It is a decidedly hypocritical opinion for the West to hold if we support Egyptians' right to self-determination only so long as its outcome corresponds exactly to our own interests.

Furthermore, there tends to be a great deal of scaremongering: the Brotherhood has, after all, frequently declared it would respect the treaty, although it may seek to renegotiate certain articles. It condemned the ransacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September. Nor is it stupid: it will not risk a war with one of the most high-tech armies in the world when it knows it would lose the war and with it political power, not to mention the $2.1bn of US aid per year. It is worth remembering, too, that it is the military regimes, not the Islamists, which have fought three wars with Israel since the 1952 revolution.

On the contrary, it is Shafik who we should be more concerned about: he is the greater threat to democracy and Egypt's prosperity. Drawn from the military like Mubarak, Sadat, and Nasser, he represents the authoritarianism which Egypt strives to escape: after the results last week a spokesman for his campaign declared "the revolution has ended". Here is a man who called Mubarak his "role-model", a public show of support (which he refuses to retract) for the dictator who was recently jailed for life for killing 846 peaceful protestors, and whose defence was that he had never technically resigned so he had presidential immunity.

Bear in mind too that the only reason Shafik was allowed to compete was because the (military-backed) electoral commission overturned the decision of the democratically-elected parliament to ban members of the old regime, while there are allegations of electoral fraud about how he made a late and surprising surge to reach the election run-off.

The language of his rallies is also highly revealing: he recently declared that there is hope for him because the Egyptian people are "obedient". In an interview with Al Jazeera he appeared to endorse the Emergency Law which ended for the first time in thirty years last Thursday and which legalised some of the more tyrannical aspects of Mubarak's rule such as extrajudicial detention.

So Shafik is a pretty dubious character with, to say the least, questionable democratic credentials. Nor should we see the military as a force for stability or as a bulwark against Islamism: their overriding goal is to keep their budget away from civilian oversight - they are estimated to control 10-30% of the Egyptian economy, at the expense of the many Egyptians who are desperately poor - a crucial cause of the revolution in the first place.

It is hard to gauge Morsi's economic policies, since the Brotherhood has had no experience of governing, but they focus on growth and investment, with concern for social justice and welfare, arguably what Egypt needs. Shafik's platform is clearer - it is the same corruption and crony capitalism which Mubarak offered, and which has put Egypt in dire straits. A third of its population is now below the poverty line and it has slid down the UN Human Development Index to 123rd, one place above Yemen. It is clear that to continue in that vein would be disastrous.

The Brotherhood are not the perfect choice. They retain a "some animals more equal than others" policy, saying women and non-Muslims are equal citizens but are unsuitable for the presidency. Some sections of its social policy and of its broad range of members are definitely troubling. But of the two remaining candidates the Brotherhood is a better bet for democracy and prosperity in Egypt.