The PJ Tatler

Knowledge Beats Wishes (Again)

I never was very optimistic about the Tahrir Square uprising. In part, that’s because I’d read the work of Sam Tadros, an Egyptian student here. I found his analyses compelling and factual. With a co-author, Amr Bargisi, he now more fully explains  in Tablet why the pessimist view proved correct. Here’s a sample:

When the Egyptian revolution came, we stayed home.

We are young, liberal Egyptian activists who have dedicated our lives to bettering our country. But from the moment in January the crowds took over Tahrir Square calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, we urged observers, particularly Western idealists already hailing the triumph of the new Egypt, to be cautious. We reminded them of Edmund Burke’s truism: Bringing down a tyrant is far, far easier than forming a free government.

It would be difficult to form such a government, we reasoned, in a society where the elite, with near unanimity, had just explained a series shark attacks in the Sinai as part of a Mossad-coordinated ploy to damage tourism. A free government must be based on universal rights, not least the right to freedom of conscience for all its citizens, and yet a Pew poll from December 2010 showed that 84 percent of the sampled Egyptian Muslims endorsed the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for Muslim apostates. For an entire country to change in one month, we argued throughout February, you need nothing short of magic.

Pessimists, naysayers, wet blankets, Mubarak cronies, apologists for the regime—we were called all these names, despite the fact that we’ve spent our adult lives within the opposition. Here was a new generation armed with iPhones and Twitter accounts that would ensure the success of liberal democracy in the region’s largest state, the enthusiasts promised. When Mubarak finally bowed to the pressure of the protesters in the streets, commentators wrote fairy-tale endings to the Egypt story, rushing off to cover the next blossoming flower of the Arab Spring. In the months that followed, no matter how far the Egyptian economy plummeted, how badly the security situation on the border with Israel deteriorated, or how many were killed in criminal, sectarian, or political violence, the narrative was maintained: Though painful, these were the necessary labor pangs of democracy.

Last week, the moment of truth finally came—or so we hope—with the results of the first phase of parliamentary elections. The Islamist parties won big: 40 percent of the electorate voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, and another 25 percent went for the Salafists, hard-line Islamists. Though forced by law to nominate at least one woman on their party lists, the Salafists had the photos of their female candidates replaced by a pictures of flowers in campaign ads, because they believe a woman’s face should not be shown publicly. The closest runner-up was the self-styled “liberal” Egyptian Bloc, which got 15 percent of the vote only because it secured the support of the Coptic minority. (The bloc’s founder is a famous Christian businessman.) The Islamist parties will likely win even bigger in the next two phases of the election, scheduled to take place in the coming few weeks, because these votes will be held almost entirely in the countryside, where political Islam dominates. (The first phase also included urban districts, where non-Islamists perform better.)