Published in Jazeera.com on November 20, 2011
Fahmy is an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at the American University of Cairo. He is the author most recently of Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt.
[These] elections are important for a number of reasons: It is the first free elections in modern memory since 1952. For the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, this is the first time they will go and vote in a free election. This is the election for a parliament that will form a constitutional assembly that will then write the constitution.
I don’t think that the election will be a clear reflection of the different political factions on the ground, because the political landscape is still in the process of formation and is being reformed and reshaped from day to day. No election will be able to capture that rapidly changing system. In that sense, it is not the upcoming election that will give us an indication of who is where and the relative strength of the different forces in Egypt, but rather the following election. That doesn’t belittle in any form or shape the significance of the election itself.
The biggest obstacle is the army, and the conflicting and confusing electoral laws that have been sent out by the army. It is effectively the army that is ruling the county. The military is trying to find a formula whereby it can guarantee its position in the post-election Egypt, so it has been trying different tactics. Earlier in the summer, it tried to have some type of an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, and that failed. Then it tried the liberal parties and again that failed.
In terms of actual concrete programmes of different candidates and parties, we haven’t seen any real debate about the questions that led to the uprising in January. We don’t have clear alternatives, except for the ideological ones – most seriously between secularists and Islamists. I think this is what the election will end up being about. This was not a revolution about or by Islamists, but the elections effectively ended up being an election about the role of Islam in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Historically, Islamists are the largest force whether we like it or not. Islamists have been hounded, oppressed, imprisoned, and have not been represented for the past 60 years. Even though it was not the Islamists that started [the uprising in] January, they stood to benefit most from it. It was the genie in the bottle and it is out now.
If you are asking me in a general sense I am very critical of Islamists, but I think this can only be a healthy thing for the region and for the world. September 11, 2001, was a very direct result of the lack of democracy in a place like Egypt and like Saudi Arabia, where very serious grievances have not been given the chance to be aired domestically. Allowing Islamists a role in the official political plane can only be a healthy thing, and we will see how they will perform in parliament.