In Egypt, for the past seven months since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, from the conspicuous rise of the Islamists to the attack on the Israeli embassy, there is nothing but bad news. Beneath the surface, the situation looks even grimmer. Consider, for example, the economy: the stock market is at its lowest since the financial crisis, with its main index down 40% from where it was before January; the Egyptian Central Bank has not only spent one third of its foreign reserves, but according to official numbers, which are optimistic, Egypt has also scored an average of 2.2% negative growth in the last two quarters.
Aside from a military coup, the occurrence and outcome of which are unpredictable, Egypt is facing one of two scenarios: a) The Islamists, whether the Muslim Brotherhood [MB]or others, take over completely through a smashing victory in the upcoming parliamentary, and perhaps presidential, elections; or b) The Islamists win a less-than-absolute majority and proceed to govern as part of a larger coalition, or else sit opposition to a coalition of all other forces. The first scenario is both more likely and much better than the second.
The primary element of Islamist propaganda in Egypt is that all political ideologies have been tried, except Islamism – and this is combined with a promise that once Islam governs, a society of unparalleled justice and prosperity will be born!
Now, we all know that, considering the dire economic and social situation mixed with too-high expectations, ruling Egypt for the next few years is not going to be a picnic. If Islamism is tried now, it is going to fail. This is exactly the reason the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood decided not to run a candidate for the presidency, and to limit its parliamentary bid to 33% of the seats, perhaps rising to 49% under extreme pressure from its grass roots. To this end, the MB has joined the absurd "democratic coalition" with 27 other groups that have absolutely nothing in common except their lack of vision, and that keep compromising to accommodate the antics of much weaker parties such as Al-Wafd.
Most recently, as rumors spread in Egyptian press that Al-Wafd will expel the MB from the coalition, prominent leaders of Al-Wafd expressed their joy over the news, one of them even calling it "a cause for celebration," to which the MB leadership responded by affirming that, "The Coalition holds, before, during and after the elections."
If the Islamists do not take full responsibility for the government, however, they -- like Hezbollah in Lebanon -- would be able to push through, by means of popular pressure, all of their policies without ever having to take responsibility for them.
The non-Islamist parties, however, are no less frivolous than the MB when it comes to matters such as managing the economy or the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Almost all political forces in Egypt, for example, are outspoken about scrapping the peace treaty with Israel -- a position considered elementary to any sort of political popularity. Whoever is in government, will either have to keep the treaty and lose popularity, or cancel the treaty and face the consequences. In both scenarios, the MB leadership would rather have someone else responsible, and be able to blame them in the next elections.
Further, the Egyptian Military still holds the keys to political power in Egypt; and as the MB will do anything to avoid a clash, it can work systematically from behind the scenes to weaken the military. The MB can, for instance, push legislation for all military officers who were forced to retire for political reasons to return to their ranks, and that way plant allies within the military leadership.
Most Islamists, however, lack the shrewdness of the MB leadership, and will waste no effort at gaining as many seats as they can. Further, the new redistricting law, proposed by the ruling Supreme Military Council, gives the Islamists a great advantage. Without getting too much into the details of the law, the basic idea is that the new districts are much larger than before, thus limiting the influence of familial and tribal connections. The candidate who can perform consistently everywhere – that is, the Islamist -- will be able to garner more votes than someone whose support and influence are confined to a specific area.
In addition, the upcoming elections are going to depart from the established rules of the game: there is no one planning who will run for election in each district after the collapse of Mubarak's National Democratic Party; and in times of economic uncertainty, the traditional candidates are unwilling to spend much money on constituencies they do not know, especially as it is unsure if the new MPs will enjoy as much authority as they used to. In other words, the non-Islamist vote would be divided among too many unenthusiastic and badly-funded candidates.
So what is to be done if the Islamists do take over government in Egypt?
First, they should receive a lukewarm treatment from the international community: no sanctions, no aid: their popularity will only feed on the former and their success on the latter.
Second, in a similar strategy to that of the MB leadership, a strong opposition should tackle the Islamists on every single policy. It is not going to be a walk in the park, but there is a historical chance now to show – case by case -- the limitations of Islamism. We should not rely too much on the existing political parties; our main focus should be on building a strong and independent civil society in think tanks, advocacy groups and media.
Third, and most importantly, the Egyptian Military should be pressured to maintain a sane Egyptian foreign policy on the one hand, and to act as a defender of democracy on the other. One major issue will be to urge the leaders of the military to ease up on their chauvinism, particularly regarding foreign aid -- either financial or logistical - to domestic groups. The military rulers of the country, and their lackeys in the media, have done little to hide their hostility to Western-backed organizations. They have not only accused many of pursuing "external" agendas; they have also been threatening legal measures to tighten the State's grip on establishing, operating and funding non-governmental organizations.
Of course, the situation in Egypt is too volatile for a final verdict, but it will probably not get any better than this. Fans of Egypt's "liberals" would disagree, and insist it is still possible for their heroes to win the next elections. Rather than trying to bring them to their senses, it might be wiser to leave it to the chilly winds of the Arab Winter's ballot box.