by Shikha Dalmia.

How Egyptians are trying to divide power between the country’s problematic players

There is no predestination in human affairs, so it is impossible to predict what a post-Arab Spring Egypt will ultimately look like. It might well degenerate into a totalitarian theocracy more odious than the secular autocracy that the Egyptian people overthrew, as some neoconservative worrywarts warn. But the run-up to the presidential elections this week suggests that Egyptians are desperately looking for a system of checks and balances to keep authoritarians of every stripe at bay.

This itself is reason to be cautiously optimistic about Egypt’s future.

Commentators like Samuel Tadros of the neoconservative Hudson Institute have been saying “I told you so” ever since the Muslim Brotherhood and its more extreme Islamist Salafi cousins together won 65 percent of the seats in parliament last December. Egyptian liberals, who had actually led the rebellion against the Mubarak dictatorship, by contrast won only 15 percent.

As far as Tadros and his ideological bedfellows are concerned, this offers proof positive that elections and democracy won’t lead to an enlightened liberalism that protects the rights of women and minorities (after all, 80 percent of Egyptians allegedly support capital punishment for apostasy). Rather, they’ll simply legitimize a reactionary and retrograde form of sharia-based government that is hostile to Western values.

But if such fears were well-founded, then Islamist hardliners would not only be ahead in Egypt’s presidential race, they’d be trumpeting their Islamist credentials from rooftops. The exact opposite, however, is happening. Both the front-runners—Aboul Fotouh, an Islamic liberal, and Amr Moussa, an outright secularist—are bending over backwards to distance themselves from extremist ideologies. The more extreme Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, is running a distant third or fourth.

Fotouh, whom the Muslim Brotherhood kicked out of its fold last year, is a genuinely interesting guy. He has managed to win the support of folks as diverse as Wael Ghonim, the young, liberal Google executive credited with spearheading the Tahrir Square uprising, and the Salafis, the ultraconservative Muslims—despite declaring that he’d prefer a good Christian to a bad Muslim as president. Like every other candidate, he supports the provision in the Egyptian constitution that recognizes sharia as the ultimate source of law. But his interpretation of sharia, interestingly enough, requires rulers to implement the freely expressed will of the people.

Fotouh’s moderate views are diluting the secularist credentials of Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League whose Achilles’ heel is that he is a remnant of the despised Mubarak regime. Moussa is trying to distract from his checkered past by drawing attention to Fotouh’s previous alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the first presidential debate ever in the Arab world last week, Moussa depicted Fotouh as a stealth candidate who, once elected, would spring his hardline Islamism on Egypt, something Fotouh hotly denied. But the fact that Moussa hopes to win political points by outing Fotouh as an Islamist rather than trying to “out-Islam” him suggests that the Arab Street ain’t exactly pining for the Ayatollah.

So why would the Egyptian public that gave Islamists a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections six months ago now be turning to Islamically challenged candidates? And why would the Salafis choose to back Fotouh over Morsi, their spiritual bro? The reason may be that Egyptians—even Salafis—don’t blindly apply a religious litmus test to their candidates. If anything, having felt the boot of a dictatorship on their neck for over half a century, they fear an autocratic regime far more than they crave an Islamic one.

Egyptians initially were attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood not because it is a Muslim outfit, but because it is a Muslim outfit that shares their experience of persecution and would therefore be less likely to persecute them. What’s more, the Brotherhood has a track record of resisting Egypt’s military-backed rulers, and was regarded as the only actor capable of standing up to the military that has been consolidating its chokehold on the government and the economy. (The military controls anywhere between 5 and 45 percent of Egypt’s industry, including water-bottling plants!)

However, the Muslim Brotherhood has proven a huge disappointment after its decisive parliamentary victory, displaying a disturbing power-hungry streak. It packed a panel tasked with writing the next constitution with its own followers. It has used its legislative powers not in the national interest, but for naked cronyism. It has lost major street cred by contesting the presidential elections after having pledged not to. Even worse, there are widespread suspicions that rather than standing up to the military, it’s cozying up to it. Hence, the prospect of the Brotherhood controlling both the executive and legislative branches is terrifying ordinary Egyptians.

All of this suggests that Egyptians are engaged in a complicated and delicate balancing act, using the Islamists to check the military and vice versa. They are intuitively acting on Lord Acton’s maxim that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and are using the upcoming elections to divide power among the country’s major—though problematic—political players.

Whether they’ll ultimately succeed, Allah only knows. But if they fail and pave the way for something odious like a theocracy or a military dictatorship, it’ll be despite—not because of—their true desires. Trying to understand their entire struggle from the narrow standpoint of whether they want sharia law both cheapens and oversimplifies the epic events unfolding on the ground.

Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist for The Daily, where this column originally appeared.

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Shikha Dalmia is the senior analyst for the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank promoting free markets. Dalmia is a columnist at Forbes and writes regularly for Reason magazine. She is the co-winner of the first 2009 Bastiat Prize for Online Journalism for her columns in Forbes and Reason.