Emad El-Din Shahin, Associate Professor, American University in Cairo;
Visiting Associate Professor, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.

The following is based on the presentation delivered by Emad El-Din Shahin at the Wilson Center on December 9, 2005. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's mainstream Islamic movement, capitalized on a strong base of support in recent Egyptian Parliamentary elections. Their performance raises questions for the future of democratization in this pace-setting Arab country and raises concerns for U.S. regional policy interests.

The Muslim Brothers won 88 of the country's 454-seat Parliament. Their unprecedented success should not been seen as a destabilizing factor. Rather, the elections present an opportunity for the U.S. to formulate a coherent policy to simultaneously promote democracy in the region and for the possibility of moderate Islamists coming to power democratically.

Various domestic and international organizations have reported serious irregularities that marred the electoral process, such as state-instigated violence, vote-buying, ballot-stuffing, intimidation of voters, attacking judges, and arresting hundreds of supporters of opposition candidates. Yet, the Muslim Brothers managed to secure a sizeable number of seats. The candidates of all the other opposition parties won only 15 seats. With less than 100 seats, the combined opposition still falls short of constituting a threat to the dominance of the state-backed National Democratic Party (NDP), which has been monopolizing power and stalling meaningful democratic reforms for the past 27 years.

These elections remain significant for several reasons. The results have underscored the place of the Muslim Brotherhood as the main opposition force in the country, thus creating an unhealthy polarization between a decaying authoritarian regime on the one hand, and an Islamist movement on the other. They also send a clear message that all the recent attempts to reform the NDP have been meaningless, as it became obvious that the state-backed party does not enjoy the voters' support and had to resort to rigging, violence, and intimidation to secure a majority. The election results show that Egypt lacks a liberal mainstream party at the moment, and despite all attempts to bolster and embolden the secular parties in Egypt, they seem unable to carry the task because of their inner weaknesses, divisions, lack of vision, cooptation by the regime, and loss of credibility.

The Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing, on the other hand, came as a result of long years of reasserting their presence at the public level, direct engagement with the people, an appealing and pragmatic reform agenda, and willingness to confront the regime and pay the price of their defiance. This strategy has paid off as they have now become the largest opposition block in the country's parliamentary history. It is about time that the movement became legalized and enabled to articulate its demands through legal channels and democratic processes. This would moderate them even further. Their contribution should animate the political life of the country: it should stimulate the secular opposition, enliven the political debates, and give the parliament some monitoring powers over Mubarak's regime.

The U.S. response should not be alarmed by the relatively strong showing of the Muslim Brothers. It is well within a manageable scale, it still constitutes a challenging exercise. The Bush administration needs to give credibility to its recently declared policy of promoting democracy in the region. Allowing an "Algerian-like" scenario to unfold in Egypt is untenable for obvious reasons. Unlike the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), The Muslim Brothers are far from coming to power or even participating in a government at this stage. In addition, Egypt is strategically too vital to allow the country to plunge into chaos. Another option is a "wait and see" policy that could open myriad possibilities for misinterpretation. It would certainly engender doubts among the pro-reform forces to the extent of the U.S. commitment to advocating a democratic change, while the region's autocrats would interpret it as a sign of support and an approval to maintain the status quo.

The U.S. should maintain a consistent position with its declared policy of supporting democracy. This entails a "proactive engagement," not only with the Muslim Brothers, but also with all the political forces in the country, including the NDP. The U.S. is still far from being confronted with an either-or choice: the autocratic NDP regime or the Muslim Brotherhood. It has other options to make. The focus should be on expanding Egypt's political space to allow a mainstream to emerge. Yet, the U.S. should be open to the idea that this mainstream might not necessarily be a secular one. It should be obvious by now that political engineering might not be tenable and has proven in some cases to be counter-productive. A secular government is not a guarantee for democracy. After all, the Iraqi and Syrian Ba'ath and most other autocratic Arab regimes are already secular.

What is needed most is the dismantling of the structures of authoritarianism, introducing of meaningful constitutional reforms, and building of structural safeguards that would make it difficult for anyone in the future, regardless of their ideological orientations—Islamist, secularist, or an army general—to change the rules of the game once they come to power. In the meantime, the way the Egyptian regime has conducted the recent elections is a good starting point for the U.S. to push for reform along with the country's pro-reform political forces: the 24 year old state of emergency must end; an independent electoral commission must be established; the judges' reform demands should be met and they should have full control over future elections; domestic and international observers must have unfettered access to the entire electoral process; and the phenomenon of NDP independents must end. The U.S. support for these procedural, yet significant, measures would certainly constitute a step forward towards a viable democracy in Egypt and in bolstering U.S. credibility in the region.