Can Islamists govern?

The big decision for the Brotherhood will be who to align with. The real surprise of the ballot so far is that the hard-liner Salafis have taken about a quarter of the vote, far outpacing both the traditional liberals who have long operated in the shadows of the military state and the more radical forces associated with Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood is a worldly force accustomed to political maneuver and compromise; the Salafis are genuine theocrats. The Salafis would probably demand clauses in the constitution limiting the rights of women or non-Muslims and would try to legislate morality, which Brotherhood parliamentarians have avoided seeking to do in the past. A Brotherhood-Salafi alliance would draw a line right through Egyptian society and might well turn Tahrir Square into a cockpit of secular-Islamist confrontation.

Will the Brotherhood turn that way? The New York Times’ account of the electoral outcome largely accepted that view. And it’s true that the Islamists can now dispense with liberal forces if they want to. On the other hand, Saad el-Katatni, the party secretary general, has explicitly rejected an alliance with Al Nour, the main Salafi group. Marina Ottaway, an Egypt expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that during the campaign season, the Freedom and Justice Party tried to build an alliance with secular forces — which ultimately formed a compact of their own — and refused to join an Islamist alliance. “If I had to take a bet about that right now,” Ottaway says, “I would bet they would form an alliance with the more secular parties and the more moderate elements.”

Joshua Stacher, an academic at Kent State University who has studied the inner workings of the Brothers, views them less as an Islamic body than as a giant jobs program. Stacher doesn’t think the Brotherhood will provoke a civil war with secular forces, but he also doesn’t think they will stand up to the generals who have replaced President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood is no longer an opposition party, Stacher notes: “They’re part of the political elite.” He can imagine a scenario in which the Brotherhood backs Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief and right-hand man, for president — a dreadful thought.