Egypt on the Edge

Ahmed Ali/AP Images
A woman passing soldiers outside a polling station in Cairo, December 5, 2011

It has been almost one year since Hosni Mubarak gave up power, and in the months since then, the future of a newly democratic Egypt has been uncertain. The political transition all but stalled this past summer, as tensions between Muslims and Copts erupted, street violence flared, and the various post-Mubarak political factions repeatedly disagreed on the form the new Egypt should have. This fall, the military council now ruling the country—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—was itself drawn into violent conflict with protesters, leading to more than forty deaths in a single week. Many wondered, amid all this, if a democratically elected civilian government would ever take office.

In late November, as Egyptians finally went to the polling stations, the direction the country would most likely take was at last becoming clear. If the preliminary results of the parliamentary elections are any indication, most Egyptians want a country governed by the Islamists, whom Mubarak and his allies had aggressively tried to suppress. In the first of a three-stage election process, which began on November 28 and ends on January 10, the Islamist factions emerged with 69.6 percent of the votes. Only nine of Egypt’s twenty-seven governorates voted in the first stage on November 28, and there are several weeks to go until the rest cast their ballots—there are some 52 million registered voters in all—but since many of the remaining electoral districts are ones in which the Islamists are known to have a strong popular following, it seems likely that their lead will be maintained, if not strengthened.

That the country’s first free and fair elections will likely result in a parliament in which the Islamists have a dominant majority is casting doubt on the promise of the democratic state that many who took part in the revolution hoped to achieve. When youth protesters first took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, they chanted their desire, among other things, for a state that promised social justice, unity, and equal rights for all. For eighteen days last winter, that model for a new and democratic Egypt seemed plausible; it was being lived in Tahrir. Copts and Muslims, women and men, youth and the elderly, secular and religious protested and prayed together and shared tents and meals. The Copts shielded the Muslims against possible attacks by thugs while they knelt down and prayed, and hundreds of the youth members of the Muslim Brotherhood surrounded the square as guardians for all, searching bags, checking IDs, and trying to ensure that informants or people hoping to disrupt the demonstrations would be swiftly escorted out.

In the aftermath of the first election results, many are wondering if the unity that came to typify the Tahrir protests is now a dream of the past. What is…

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