Commentary: When it comes to Egypt, will Washington get it right?

Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald.
Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

Voters in Egypt, the largest, most populous Arab country have just completed the first round of elections since overthrowing their long-time dictator. The results are as demoralizing as they were predictable: Some two-thirds of voters chose members of Islamist parties to represent them in parliament.

The grim landscape brings to mind the warnings that a private group of Middle East experts sent to the Obama administration in February 2010, months before the start of the protests. The Working Group on Egypt warned the administration that Egypt stood at “critical turning point” urging Washington to push for “gradual, responsible democratic reform,” or face damaging consequences for the Egyptian people, the U.S. and the entire Middle East.

The Working Group includes prominent members from all points on the political spectrum. Their most common trait is a strong interest and profound knowledge of the Middle East.

In the earliest days of the Egyptian uprising, on Jan. 29, they urged the Obama administration to call for free elections and to help arrange for a transition that included leaders of the democratic opposition. Mostly, they have called for the U.S. to support transition to a democracy that protects civil rights and liberties. Instead, Washington has responded with muddled inconsistency, as if it had been caught by surprise. In fact, the administration was urged to prepare for this situation in a country where it spends more than billion dollars a year trying to influence policy.

The political system in Egypt, is still under construction. The military committee that took control after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, is still trying to maneuver to protect its future standing.

It’s unclear how much direct influence over Egyptian politics and over the writing of the constitution the new parliament will have. We don’t know what kind of political system the Egyptian constitution will dictate. Will it be a coalition-style parliamentary system with a prime minister? Or will it be a presidential system, with voters choosing the executive with vast powers?

What we do know is that the victory at the polls by Islamic parties is a defeat for progressive forces in Egypt; a defeat for the people and the ideals the United States and the West hope will prevail in Egypt, the Middle East and, for that matter, throughout the world.

The Muslim Brotherhood won about 40 percent of the vote. In today’s Egypt, the MB is the more moderate of Islamist choices. It vows to respect civil liberties, democracy, women’s equality, and relations with the U.S. and Israel. The shocker in the elections was the strong showing of the hardline ultra-conservative Salafists, who took nearly one-quarter of the vote. Their ideas are reminiscent of the Taliban and of the Saudi Wahhabis. Salafis reject democracy, freedom of religion, equality for the sexes, and modern life as we know it. For Egyptian women, for Coptic Christians — about 10 percent of the population — and for anyone who yearns to see the country move toward true democracy with personal and political freedom, the Brotherhood’s victory is troubling, but the Salafists’ strong showing is terrifying.

Perhaps the outcome of the election will frighten and energize those who have the most to lose inside Egypt. The truth, however, is that we always knew Islamists would win. We just didn’t know the size of the landslide. During decades of dictatorship, political parties were banned; only the mosque and religious leaders were allowed to speak to the masses. Voters view Islamist parties as representing clean government, the ways of God. Islamists had a giant head start. Liberals brought the revolution, but they had no experience and little time to organize and educate the public.

The most prominent fact about Egypt today is political and economic uncertainty. But we know two things: One, the economy is collapsing, in desperate need of investment. Two, Washington spends a fortune in Egypt every day. Those two facts should add up to some degree of influence. Let’s hope Washington uses it wisely this time.

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