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Egypt and Islam

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Initial results from Egypt's first elections since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak are in, and it appears Islamist parties have captured the lion's share of the vote. The rise of politicians eager to curtail basic human rights, particularly for women, in the name of religion is cause for real concern, but this early round of voting does not necessarily mean the country is headed for an Iran-like theocracy. The U.S. and its allies must resist the impulse to do anything that might push the country in that direction.

Even after the Islamists' electoral victory, the big questions remain what role the Egyptian military will play in the country's transition to civilian rule and to what extent it will act as a check on extremist tendencies. Turkey is an example of a Muslim country with a moderate, democratically elected Islamist government and a military with a strong secular tradition, as is Indonesia. That suggests that Islamist-oriented parties need not necessarily be enemies of democracy.

Egypt's experiment in popular self-rule is just beginning, and the country still has a chance to establish a balance between Islamist and secular forces that would allow both the democratic impulse of the Tahrir Square demonstrations and Islamic tradition to coexist. The emergence of an Islamist government in Egypt may well alter the country's political and military cooperation with the U.S., but there's no reason a rupture can't be avoided if the relationship is managed wisely.

As expected, the party formed by Egypt's mainstream Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, garnered about 40 percent of the ballots. The group was widely considered the most organized political force in the country, having spent decades underground quietly preparing for the post-Mubarak era. When it re-emerged after the uprising that overthrew the dictator, its backers were in a position to make the most of the country's first free elections.

More surprising was the 25 percent of the vote that went to an ultraconservative religious bloc, the Salafis. Its leaders espouse a far more extreme interpretation of Islam that, among other things, views music and entertainment as sinful and rejects women's right to vote or participate in public life. Since the uprising, there have been reports of Salafis openly calling for laws restricting the sale of alcohol, segregating boys and girls in public schools and censoring television programs, movies and the arts.

That has alarmed Egyptian secularists and others who fear the prospect of religious parties hijacking the country's democratic revolution. Similar misgivings have been expressed by members of the country's Coptic Christian minority, which makes up an estimated 10 percent of the country's population. If the religious mainstream and fundamentalist religious parties join forces, they say, their community could suffer the kind of persecution Iran's religious minorities, including Jews and Baha'is, have endured under the ruling clerics in Tehran.

Such speculation may be premature, however. The first task of the parliament will be to write a new constitution for the country, and it remains to be seen to what extent the army generals who have been running the country since Mr. Mubarak's fall will allow Islamist principles to dominate that document. Both secular and religious parties insist the military should immediately hand over power to a civilian government, a move the generals have resisted, citing the need to maintain stability.

One eventual outcome could see an arrangement under which the Muslim Brotherhood and the military cooperate as principal power brokers, with the mainstream Islamic party forming alliances with the secularists and liberal parties to form a governing majority. Last week, the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would not enter into alliance with the Salafis, perhaps a sign that it will keep its promise to protect the rights of women and religious minorities.

As an Arab democracy, it's inevitable Egypt will have Islamist parties that garner a significant share of the vote, and there are still many ways its experiment in popular self rule could go off track. But democracy is an inherently messy process — ours certainly did not start smoothly — nor is it something that is achieved overnight or even in a single election. This is just the beginning of a process whose ultimate outcome is impossible to predict, and there will be many more such moments before democratic governance is firmly entrenched in Egyptian culture. But it would be wrong to automatically assume that religion, democracy and respect for human rights are a lost cause in the new Egypt that is emerging.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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