Dr. Zackery M. Heern, Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at Murray State University, gives some historical insight into Islam and Egypt's first presidential election.
Last week, Egyptians participated in their first free democratic presidential election in history. For a country that is more than five thousand years old, this is monumental. It is an indicator that democracy is on the rise in the Arab world. The elections come in the wake of hard fought battles by protesters, insurgents, and the international community to rid the Arab world of long-standing dictators.
One of these autocrats was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. This week, he became the first Arab dictator to be sentenced to life in prison by his own people. Mubarak’s successor will likely play an important role in laying a new foundation for the course of Egypt. In practical terms, this means drafting a new constitution, setting the tone for international relations with Israel, the United States, and so forth.
The Arab uprisings will prove to be a new phase in the history of the Middle East. However, only future historians will be able to determine what the long-term impact will be. At this early stage, the increase in democracy is bringing Islamists to power. Islamists represent a wide spectrum of political ideals. But, their common ground is the goal of implementing Islamic principles in the government. Islamists throughout the Middle East owe their popular support to their ability to provide the disenfranchised with social services.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the original Islamist organization. It began in Egypt in the 1920s and has since spread throughout the Islamic world. In fact, Palestine’s Hamas originated as a splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood. For much of its history, the Egyptian government deemed the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, forcing it to operate underground. In recent history, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has toned down its rhetoric and extremist methods.
Islamists have already had success in the parliamentary elections held earlier this year in Egypt. More than two-thirds of parliament members represent the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Nour Party.
As a result of the first round of presidential elections held last week, two candidates remain standing. The run-off election will be held in mid-June. The front-runner – Dr. Muhammad Morsi – is the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate.
His rival is Ahmad Shafiq, who was the last prime minister of ousted president Mubarak. Thousands of protesters poured into the streets of multiple Egyptian cities on Friday demanding that Shafiq be disqualified from the race. This comes after a mob set fire to his campaign headquarters last week. These protesters denounce Shafiq as a remnant of the Mubarak regime. If these protesters are any indication, Morsi, the Islamist candidate, will win the election.
It is worth noting that neither Morsi nor Shafiq represent the will of many of the protesters who originally took to the streets to bring down the Mubarak regime. Indeed, many Egyptians shutter at the remaining candidates, whom they see as a choice between an Islamist and authoritarian regime. If democracy firmly takes root in Egypt, it is possible that alternative political parties will emerge.
For now, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood seem poised to control the immediate future of Egypt. Morsi has been painted by the media as an un-charismatic politician, who will carry out the will of the Muslim Brotherhood. His campaign rally-cry is “The Qur’an is our constitution and Islamic law is our guide.” He is clearly committed to making Egypt an Islamic state.
The major precedent for Morsi’s vision of a democratic Islamic state is Iran. Similar to Iran, Morsi has suggested that the government should have a council of Muslim scholars who advise the government. Additionally, non-Muslims and women will not be eligible to run in future presidential elections. However, Egypt will not look to Iran as a model to be followed. It will likely create a new Egyptian model.
Dr. Zackery Heern is a Middle East Specialist in the Department of History at Murray State.