Egypt last week completed the final stage
of its parliamentary elections. With a handful of seats still to be
decided, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood (officially banned, so
standing as independents) has won 88 seats – only about a fifth of the
total, but a huge increase on their previous tally of 15.

This is especially impressive since the elections have hardly been a
model of fairness. Nine people were killed last week in clashes between
police and opposition supporters, and there have been numerous reports
of arrests and intimidation of those opposed to president Hosni Mubarak.

It’s reasonable to conclude that in a genuinely fair election, the
Muslim Brotherhood, as the only credible alternative to Mubarak’s
authoritarianism, would sweep the board. As the BBC reported, “from the evidence of these election results, if Egypt has a democratic future, it is Islamist.”

This prospect has apparently set off a debate
within the US administration as to whether to open contacts with the
Brotherhood, or whether to backtrack on their previous support for

One question is just how extremist Egypt’s Muslims are. Contrary to
popular belief, there is no such monolithic movement as “Islamism.” The New York Times
describes the Brotherhood as “pushing for expanded civil liberties,
albeit with a religious tint,” and says the election “could determine
whether political Islam will turn Egypt into a repressive,
anti-American theocracy or if Islamic parties across the Arab world
will themselves be transformed by participating in mainstream politics.”

Two examples show the extremes of what could happen. In Algeria, the
army stepped in to prevent the victory of Muslim fundamentalists in
democratic elections in 1991. The result was a civil war that cost an
estimated 150,000 lives, and a continuing political stalemate that
Algeria is still trying to find its way out of.

In Turkey, on the other hand, democracy seems to have tamed the Islamic
movement. Current prime minister Recep Erdogan, who visited Australia last week,
represents the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party, but his
government has been a strong proponent of democratic reform with a view
to membership of the European Union. If Egypt needs a role model,
Turkey would be a good place to look.