After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, many Western commentators were surprised by the ease with which Iraq’s religious movements adapted to multiparty democracy. The Shi’ite groups, in particular, were quick to organize into political parties, set up grass-roots organizations across the country and form practical coalitions ahead of elections. Long assumed to be ideologically opposed to democracy, these groups showed they were in fact brilliantly adaptable. Their leaders, despite having little experience in kissing babies, campaigned like seasoned pros.
In contrast, Iraq’s liberal parties were rank amateurs. Their leaders, despite having spent decades in exile in Western democracies (whereas most Islamist exiles were confined to places like Iran and Syria), seemed not to understand how democracy works: people like Iyad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi had an air of entitlement, assuming that people would vote for them merely because they were modern, progressive and famous. They didn’t bother to create a national party infrastructure, nor did they care to campaign. Instead, they held all-day salons in the manner of medieval monarchs giving audience to the elite.
Something very similar is unfolding in Egypt. Of all the political groups to have emerged since the fall of Hosni Mubarak — including the myriad youth movements, secular parties, leftists and remnants of the old National Democratic Party — the Muslim Brotherhood seem to have the best understanding of how democracy works. The Islamist group may have taken a backseat to the liberal youth movement that brought down the dictator, but it has wasted little time in preparing for the post-Mubarak era. Although the generals in charge of Egypt’s transition have not yet announced a date for the parliamentary elections (which are expected in the fall), the Brotherhood is already campaigning vigorously, in Cairo and the countryside. The youth movement, on the other hand, seems unable to break out of protest mode.
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The gap between the two sides was exposed in a mid-March referendum on constitutional reforms. The Brotherhood mobilized a massive “yes” vote to ensure that any meaningful reforms would take place after the parliamentary elections. The liberals were split, unsure as to which scenario they feared more: a constitution written by a military-appointed panel before the elections, or one written by a Brotherhood-dominated parliament afterward. It was a rout: 77% voted yes.
The gap has not closed. Since the referendum, many liberals have sought to undermine the result by trying to force through reforms before the elections. Their great champion, former U.N. nuclear watchdog (and Nobel laureate) Mohamed ElBaradei, argues that the constitution can’t wait for people’s elected representatives. The youth leaders agree and are threatening to return to Tahrir Square if they don’t get their way. They claim the referendum doesn’t matter because the Brotherhood misled Egyptians by portraying it as a vote on religion. (The Islamists deny this, and some neutral observers say both sides played fast and loose with the facts.)
This carping makes the liberals look like sore losers, and far from democratic. Critics accuse them of trying to buy time: a postponement in the elections would give liberals more time to get their political house in order and hopefully catch up with the Brotherhood’s organizational lead. Even Alaa al-Aswany, a novelist and strong Brotherhood critic, acknowledges that it ill behooves the liberals to attempt an end run around the referendum. “The people made a choice, and we have to respect it,” he says.
The Brotherhood, meanwhile, is sitting pretty. It has offered to form a broad coalition with liberals and leftists in the elections, and promises that there will be no attempt to hijack the constitutional reform process afterward. “The new constitution has to be written by all Egyptians,” says Essam Erian, a top Brotherhood leader. “No one group should have a louder voice than the others.” This makes the Islamists look responsible and conciliatory, and is likely to play well with voters. (See more on the Brotherhood’s election strategy in posts to come.)
In Iraq, it took the liberals years to catch up with the religious parties in organizational and campaigning skills. In the last election, Allawi finally cobbled together a coalition that won more seats than any other group, only to be outmaneuvered by postelection horse trading. If Egypt’s liberals aren’t careful, a similar fate awaits them.