Could the Salafists actually win Egypt's elections?

By “win,” I mean end up with the most votes, not a clear majority. Only the Muslim Brotherhood had a shot at that, and thanks to the Salafists, that possibility’s now up in smoke. The official results:

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 36.6% and the Salafis of the Al Nour party won 24.4% of the 9.7 million votes cast. The Brotherhood’s dominance was expected, but the strong showing by the Salafis was a surprise, suggesting Egyptians were heavily influenced by the religious message and grass-roots organization of the Islamists.

If the trend continues in the second and third rounds, Islamists could control parliament. But in recent days the Muslim Brotherhood has distanced itself from the puritanical Salafis, attempting to strike a moderate tone that could possibly persuade secular and centrist parties to join it in a coalition government. The Brotherhood is pushing for a constitution anchored in Islamic law but has been careful not to emphasize religion over mending the nation’s severe economic and social problems…

The Islamists’ victory has been foreshadowed by preelection polls as well as by early unofficial reports about the elections’ outcome. But the official results showed just how thoroughly the young revolutionaries who plugged into social media to ignite a revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak in February had failed to excite voters. They won no more than 336,000 votes.

Most of the pre-election estimates I saw had the Salafists at 10-15 percent and the Brotherhood at 40-45 with a shot at 50. Which made sense: The MB’s been an institution in Egypt for decades despite the state’s best efforts to suppress it whereas the Salafists only started organizing recently. When you’re picking a new regime, you go with what you know. The flaw in that theory for the Brotherhood, it seems, is that what Egyptians know most of all is Islam, which boosted the one party in the field that’s even more ostentatious about Koran-waving than the MB is. So the Brotherhood wins this round, albeit with a smaller margin than expected, and now the election moves to more rural, less educated areas, which could cut either way. Because the MB is better organized, it might have a longer reach in the countryside than the Salafists do — sending volunteers to more villages, knocking on more doors, bribing people with food, etc. But these same rural, less educated voters are the Salafists’ potential base — and even if an undecided would otherwise lean towards the Brotherhood because of their brand recognition, Arab media coverage of the Salafists’ showing in the first round might be raising their profile enough to make them competitive. A Salafi party spokesman predicted yesterday that they will in fact win the next two rounds and become the biggest party in Egypt. Is there any reason to think that’s impossible, or even implausible? Anyone with expertise is invited to e-mail me confirming or denying that and I’ll update below.

Here’s the other wrinkle to this clusterfark. Assuming that the Brotherhood does hold on and emerge with a plurality in parliament, should they form a government with the liberals or with the Salafists? In theory, the more liberal and secular the new parliament is, the better for the west and for Israel. But is that true in the near term? Having ousted Mubarak and still in the grip of revolutionary fervor, Egyptians are probably expecting rapid improvement from the new parliament — but that’s simply not going to happen, and when it doesn’t, disappointed voters will look to the party that’s been locked out of power to be their new savior. If a second election is held, how big will the Salafists’ gains be under those circumstance? Also, if the MB forms a unity government with all sorts of non-Islamist factions, it vitiates the idea of an Islamist mandate. That in turn would strengthen the military’s hand over the new parliament, which also sounds good to western ears: The military, after all, is the friendliest institution in Egypt to the U.S. thanks to that filthy lucre we keep dumping on them. The problem is, the stronger the military’s hand, the more likely it is that there’ll be another popular backlash, new rallies in Tahrir Square, and repercussions in the next election (again, if there is one). That too would leave the Salafists, as the party out of power, positioned to ride popular discontent to huge gains, which means in a few years we could see an Egyptian parliament that’s even more radical than one dominated by the Brotherhood.

An MB spokesman has already rejected the idea of a coalition with the Salafists, but who knows how firm that commitment is. Look on the bright side: If the Brotherhood does end up partnering with them, they’ll share blame as Egypt’s economy continues to crumble, leaving the non-Islamists to benefit next time. The big question mark here, really, is how the MB will deal with its unlikely new identity as the, ahem, “centrists” in Egyptian political life. Do they pander to religious voters by pushing more Salafist-type policies than they otherwise would have or do they try to build international legitimacy by drawing a contrast between their policies and the Salafists’? We all know it’s going to end in disaster, the only question is how, specifically. Stay tuned!