What’s the biggest surprise in Egypt’s historic, first parliamentary elections since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak?
That the voting has gone so well. There are few reports so far of corruption or vote rigging, which was standard practice under the 30-year autocratic rule of Mubarak.
And there have been no reports of election violence, which was feared by many as the Monday election came close on the heels of a week of violent clashes in Tahrir Square in which a brutal crackdown by security forces killed more than 30 people and injured more than 2,000.
So what’s the least surprising aspect of these elections?
That the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to make significant strides in taking a leadership role in parliament.
Unofficial exit polling reportedly shows the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party making big strides in the fertile farmlands of Fayoum, where Islamist movements have been strong in the past, and in the working class neighborhoods of Cairo, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s history of delivering public services has won them a loyal following.
Brookings’ Shadi Hamid has articulated all along that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a prominent role in Egypt’s new parliament, garnering at least 30 percent of the seats in the upper and lower houses by his estimation.
And therefore the United States will have to find a way to work with the Muslim Brotherhood and vice versa. The Muslim Brotherhood has a long and checkered history that includes violence. But it also has a more recent story of renouncing violence and embracing the democratic process since at least 2005 when the then-outlawed movement had underground members who represented about 20 percent of parliament.
With relatively moderate Islamic fundamentalist parties winning in Tunisia last month and in Morocco this month, Egypt’s election results will likely be seen as part of a trend in the Arab world.
And that trend is the rising of popularly elected officials who want their faith as Muslims to shape the policies of their new governments and to play a prominent role in the drafting of new constitutions.
How the role of religion will play out in Egypt and elsewhere will present challenges to the secular elite in the Arab world, to women and to Christian minorities and also to American foreign policy.
The question, as Hamid frames it, is how quickly and how smartly America is able to embrace this challenge and engage in productive dialogue with these popularly elected movements.
That is, if the U.S. truly believes in its own rhetoric about democracy.