The news that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have taken 65 percent of the vote in Egypt’s first free democratic elections for decades should surprise no one.
The Brotherhood’s popularity ought to have been a given. Sidelined and persecuted for decades under former President Hosni Mubarak, the party has long positioned itself as a popular alternative to tyranny; this past week was the first opportunity for it to legitimately operate as such. In addition, in a country where unemployment, poverty and illiteracy levels are elevated, the phenomenon of choosing political affiliation on religious grounds finds fertile breeding.
Even during the upheaval witnessed by Egypt during the first few months of 2011, while predominately young, liberal and secular individuals and parties – as well as the eventual supporters of political entities baring those hallmarks – were out on Tahrir Square and other streets across Egypt, the Brotherhood was preparing for power. They have been by far the most organized organization in the electoral mix and their victory should come as no surprise.
But now comes the hard part. After all the sacrifice made by ordinary Egyptians to even get to this point, it is right that the Brotherhood is given the benefit of the doubt that it will get on with the job of improving the country, for all its inhabitants.
Challenges abound and the Brotherhood has a choice over whom it allies itself with. Given that the economy is still languishing following the Arab Spring, given that tourism is the country’s largest source of income, and given that tourists will only continue to flock to Egypt if their civil liberties remain intact, it is not advisable for the organization to saddle up to parties who expound a terser form of Islam.
Foreigners and Egyptians should be free to visit or to live in a new and improved Egypt, a country that respects human rights and celebrates religious diversity. Given that the Brotherhood has essentially been mandated with rebuilding Egypt, it should seek policies that improve the lives of everyone, Muslim or otherwise.
It may seem like a contradiction to elect a party largely on religious grounds then ask it to eschew religion in favor of civic priorities, but that is exactly what Egypt needs the Muslim Brotherhood to do.
The country remains the most populous in the region and is still seen as a leader of Arab states. The form of governance Egypt now espouses will likely be replicated elsewhere, so the pressure is on.
After failing for decades to keep up with the times, Egypt, under its new leadership, must be allowed to move into 21st century rather than languishing under governance that could set it back centuries.
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