Editor's Note: John L. Esposito is University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He recently spent time interviewing people in Tunisia and Egypt.
By John L. Esposito - Special to CNN
After meeting with Egyptians from across the political spectrum and after reviewing poll results, I noticed one common belief a year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak: The revolution is just beginning.
Egyptians are disillusioned by the slow pace of change. But they also feel empowered. This sense was reinforced by free and fair parliamentary elections and wider freedom in the media, across civil society and on the street. Despite the obstacles and concerns about the military, people across the political spectrum say when things go wrong, the people’s voice will be heard in a return to Tahrir Square.
A recent Gallup poll reflected this sense of empowerment and responsibility: “Today 90 percent say that if there is a problem in their community, it is up to them to fix it. And after an election seen as fair by most, the percentage of Egyptians that think they have not only the responsibility but also the power to make change surged from 55 percent in September to 74 percent in December 2011.”
There is anger, particularly among activists, at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for using violence to suppress protests and for continuing to arbitrarily arrest members of civil society. Activists demand that the SCAF either hand power to the parliament or call for early presidential elections so that the new president would take the lead and the "temporary" military rule after the revolution would end.
While the public, unlike activists, still retain faith in the SCAF, the majority favor the military playing no role in politics after the presidential election. The majority of the public favor an expedited presidential election. Indeed, most say delaying the election for the top executive position would be “bad for Egypt”.
What about the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists?
The extent of the Islamists sweep of parliamentary elections, especially the strong performance of the Salafists, which surprised all, has raised concerns about their dominant roles in parliament and its implications for Egypt’s new constitution.
Far from monolithic, both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis today incorporate diverse currents - ideologically, politically, and socioeconomically. The Muslim Brotherhood as deep divisions between the more conservative older generation of official leadership and the youth.
After dismissing a large number of activists who work for Abdel Moneim Abolfotouh's presidential campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership eventually realized that it is incapable of stopping its youth from joining his campaign and it stopped trying. Abolfatouh, a long time leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, espoused a more independent and inclusive position than its more conservative leadership. This vision proved more attractive to some younger activists and others outside the ranks of the Brotherhood.
While the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership is open to more progressive members and currents of thought, it retains and asserts its hierarchical structure. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership struggles to both assert newly found political clout while not wanting to confront or alienate the military.
Their refusal to support major demonstrations and marches against SCAF has brought criticism from many Arab Spring activists. They decided to focus on elections and were trying to avoid confrontations with SCAF that would escalate to the 1954 scenario when former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the organization and imprisoned and hanged its leaders.
Many in Muslim Brotherhood senior leadership will be challenged to move beyond the organizational elder-dominated hierarchical authority of the past. Though reinforced as a survival technique during the Mubarak regime, it will need to engage in greater power sharing within the Brotherhood and across Egyptian society. It will need to support more progressive and often younger representatives in their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Implementation of the FJP platform with an emphasis on a politically and religiously pluralistic civil government based on equality of citizenship and gender equality will be critical both for the Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility vis-a-vis other sectors of Egyptian society and to avoid defections within the ranks of their organization.
Only twelve women, (three appointed and nine elected, including four FJP women) are in the new parliament. The under-representation of women was due to the fact that political parties put them very low on their lists, which greatly diminished any chance of winning.
Political parties were obliged to put at least one woman in their electoral lists, and ironically many did just that. This is in stark contrast to Tunisia, which used a more proportional representation approach that resulted in a Constitutional Assembly that was 25% elected women, 85% of whom were members of the Ennahdha Party, which is moderately Islamist. This constitutes the highest female representation in the Arab world.
Municipal elections in Egypt in a few months might be a good opportunity to include women and youth who were not empowered enough during the parliamentarian elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood is well aware that its electoral success is both an opportunity and a challenge in the coming months. It needs to deliver on key issues as seen by majority of Egyptians. These are economic and political - not theological.
The Muslim Brotherhood and so-called liberal parties can agree upon economic development, jobs, equality of citizenship and political and religious pluralism, stability and security, freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly women’s rights and religious tolerance in a new constitution.
Similarly, I believe supporters of Islamists are no more likely than other Egyptians to oppose a peace treaty with Israel. So too, both are open to closer bilateral relations with the U.S. and with the European Union but based on partnership and national interests.
The Salafis are also quite diverse politically (many are apolitical) and ideologically. Many Salafis were surprised at how ell they did in recent elections. As one member of the Al-Nour Party noted, “Quite a few Salafis voted for the Muslim Brotherhood because they did not expect Salafis to do well enough as to make their vote significant.” Future Salafi strategy includes regaining these votes while chipping away at the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Islamic credentials” and support.
The Salafis are open to political alliances but will challenge the religious authenticity and Islamic credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, while the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party can agree on many political and economic issues, political Salafis espouse a more ultra-conservative religious ideology and interpretation of Shariah, which they believe should be implemented.
As one Salafi put it, “We can agree on many economic and political issues but we represent a different religious voice, our language is more that of a dawa organization.” More hardline Salafis demand Shariah now, as well as what has come to be characterized as "bikini issues": bans on Western style bathing suits and prohibition on alcohol. Others are content to wait years seeing it as long term strategy.
A cross section of Egyptians remain committed to a peaceful political transition. Most share a common desire to curb the military government and move quickly toward civilian government. Tahrir Square remains a living symbol and place to mobilize opposition to the military in street protests.
The first anniversary’s massive protests became a way to recommit to realizing the goals of the revolution and reaffirm the importance of national unity. At the same time, the stunning victory of Islamists raises questions about whether they will demonstrate a willingness to pursue and build a democratic, pluralistic political system and effectively address pressing economic issues.
While the platform of the FJP and its initial attempts to signal an inclusive political approach by supporting non-Muslim Brotherhood members for senior government positions, there is greater concern about the Salafists who are new players in Egyptian politics.
In Egypt as in Tunisia, a widespread concern and question is whether the U.S. and EU really accepted the winds of change. Ironically, many Egyptians were asking the same question that many in the West asked about Islamists, “Do they double speak?”
Egyptians like Tunisians remain concerned if not convinced about possible U.S. and European interference in their political affairs. According to the Gallup World Poll, about two-thirds of Egyptians think the U.S. will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. A similar number disagree that the U.S. is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region.
To build trust and strengthen our relationship with newly empowered Arab societies, the U.S. and EU must continue to stand for democratic principles - not political parties or individuals.
The primary focus of American attention and concern should not be religion or Islamists per se but rather political, social, and economic change where Muslims live.
As we watch the emergence of new governments and the continued struggles for regime change or democratic reforms, we must move beyond a now discredited narrative and support new emerging Arab governments. We must also stand back and not intervene in the political process as they exercise the very freedoms our country was founded upon.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of John Esposito.