2011-12-14 / Commentary

‘What is the West afraid of?’

Nicholas Kristof

ISMAILIA, Egypt — When I reported on Twitter the other day that I was having dinner with members of the Muslim Brotherhood here in Egypt, followers tweeted back alarmed about my safety.

Many Westerners (and some liberal Egyptians) are, frankly, freaking out about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Islamists known as Salafis in the Egyptian elections. To understand why they won roughly two-thirds of the votes, I drove to this Suez Canal city of Ismailia, where the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928.

The first clue to the success of the Brotherhood: Its offices are social service agencies. Citizens dropped in to ask for blankets for the winter, and the party handed them out — along with campaign brochures. Several people asked for help paying medical bills, and they got it. In the evening, women arrived to take a free class about science.

“They do good social work,” acknowledged Ahmed Kenawi, himself a social worker who hasn’t yet decided for whom to vote.

Islamic parties get money for these social services partly from religious tithing by pious Muslims. Supporters of secular parties don’t seem as generous with their cash. Likewise, the Salafi parties are ubiquitous in the back alleys in a way secular parties aren’t.

“ The other parties, we just don’t see them,” said Samah Abdulkarim, a 25- year- old teacher who said she is supporting the Salafis. “Or, if we do see them, it’s only during the election season.”

I asked her if the Salafi parties would curb female professionals like herself, and she looked puzzled. No, she said, Salafis are good for women because they help needy women.

That reflected a common theme: People don’t vote for Islamic parties because they seek Saudi- or Iranian-style religious repression. Rather, they vote for Islamic parties for the same reason Germans support Christian Democrats or Southerners favor conservative Christians: pious candidates are perceived as reflecting traditional values.

“Voters feel secular parties in the past were corrupted and didn’t raise living standards,” said Abdulwahab Syed Gamal, a volunteer for an independent votereducation group. “People think that if candidates are God-fearing, they won’t take bribes.”

“The price of sugar, the price of rice — that’s what voters care about,” he added. “If Islamists can deliver on that, they’ll succeed. If not, they’ll be voted out in the next election. We’re not going to end up like Somalia.”

Some Salafi leaders have made extremist statements — suggesting that women and Christians are unfit to be leaders, raising questions about the peace treaty with Israel, and denouncing the great Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz, for sacrilege. But the voters I talked to were more moderate. Some did say that they liked the idea of an Islamic state or adopting some principles of Shariah law, but most viewed this as symbolic, a bit like “In God We Trust” on American coins.

Many seemed stunningly naive and insular, unable to understand why Egypt’s Christian minority is nervous in the aftermath of attacks on churches. Conservative Muslims insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is nondiscriminatory and the perfect home for pious Christians — and a terrific partner for the West.

“What is the West afraid of ?” said Ayman Hisham, a 24-yearold Salafi, sounding genuinely puzzled. He said that under Salafi rule, diplomatic relations with Israel would continue unchanged and ties with America would strengthen.

My interpreter in Ismailia was a young Egyptian-American woman who wore American clothing and did not cover her hair. So I asked some conservatives if she would have to cover herself if Islamic parties controlled Egypt.

“This is her decision,” said Dr. Hisham el-Soly, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate for Parliament. “The state will not dictate how people should live.” (One Salafi did suggest that she could use some “guidance,” and two other Salafis fled in terror rather than be interviewed by an infidel and a woman.)

Secular Egyptians often distrust assurances from the religious parties. They despair, caught between an army with dictatorial instincts and a conservative religious movement that is winning votes.

My take is that it’s reasonable to worry, but let’s not overdo it. Let’s also remember that the Egyptian Army remains a force for secularism. And there’s a reasonable chance that a more secular president like Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League secretary general, will be elected to balance religious parties in Parliament.

Our fears often reflect our own mental hobgoblins. For a generation, we were terrified of secular Arab nationalists, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt in the ’60s. The fears of the secularists proved overblown, and I think the same is true of anxieties about Islamic parties in Egypt today.

In any case, democracy is a step forward even when voters disappoint us. An 18- year- old student, Rana Abdelhai, told me that she would never vote for a Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi candidate. But, she added wisely: “This is democracy now. We have to respect who other people choose, even if they make the wrong choice.”

NICHOLAS KRISTOF writes for The New York Times.

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