On Egypt: Trying to predict the future votes

Your GetReligionistas have the luxury -- which we welcome -- of doing our work in the past tense. Our goal (statement of intent here) is to look at examples of how the mainstream press covers religion news. We try to praise the good, spot some of the ghost-shaped holes and, on occasion, attempt to correct some errors.

It would be much harder, of course, to do this work ahead of the actual coverage.

However, that is what a religious-liberty advocate named Samuel Tadros -- a former leader in the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth -- did the other day, writing on behalf of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. Yes, I know that it's a conservative think tank. You can tell that it's conservative because it exists to defend the religious liberties of minorities, such as progressive Muslims, Baha'is, Christians, Jews, etc., a task that is properly linked to traditional liberalism. Be patient for a moment and read what he had to say -- in future tense.

Note that this article ran at National Review Online on Nov. 28, under the headline, "What to Watch For in the Egyptian Elections." That headline is a bit misleading. It should have been called, "What to Watch For in the Press Coverage of the Egyptian Elections."

Here are his first two points:

1. The question is not whether the Islamists will win, but what the size of their victory is going to be. Contrary to the earlier narrative propagated by the Western media, the Islamist victory will not be in the 30–40 percent range. It is quite apparent to anyone that has been paying attention that their victory will be nothing short of a tsunami.

2. The real battle is not going to be between the Islamists and the imagined liberals. The struggle in most Egyptian governates will be between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Democratic Alliance and the more radical Salafist Islamic Alliance.

Noting that these early elections are actually in liberal, urban, multicultural strongholds, Tadros predicted:

If the Islamists manage to get 50 percent of this round, we should expect their overall to be in the 65 percent range.

By all means, read it all. Then click here to read the latest New York Times reporting from Cairo by a reporter who is one of the Gray Lady's strongest assets, David D. Kirkpatrick. The headline: "Early Results in Egypt Show a Mandate for Islamists."

Pay close attention to the numbers in this summary near the top:

The party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 percent of the vote, as expected. But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.

Analysts in the state-run news media said early returns indicated that Salafi groups could take as much as a quarter of the vote, giving the two groups of Islamists combined control of nearly 65 percent of the parliamentary seats.

That victory came at the expense of the liberal parties and youth activists who set off the revolution, affirming their fears that they would be unable to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak years organized and with an established following.

There was a "big surprise"? That depends on who you were reading before the election.

Near the very bottom of this very dense and newsy report there was this ominous note:

Some members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority -- about 10 percent of the population -- joked Wednesday that they would prepare to leave the country. Previously protected by Mr. Mubarak’s patronage, many have dreaded the Islamists’ talk of protecting the Islamic character of Egypt. Some Brotherhood leaders often repeat that they believe citizenship is an equal right of all regardless of sect, even chanting at some campaign rallies that Copts are also “sons of Egypt.” But Salafis more often declare that Christians should not fear Islamic law because it requires the protection of religious minorities, an explanation that many Christians feel assigns them second-class status.

Most Copts voted for the liberal Egyptian bloc, which was vying for second place with the Salafis in some reports.

In other words, this liberal bloc was vying for second in urban Egypt. And in the rest of the nation, far from the liberal strongholds that drove the Arab Spring? Results there will be even easier to predict.

Here is my one major criticism of this early Times report. It could have been improved, as my old college mentor used to say, with scissors and tape. A key element need to be moved higher.

Remember this sentence mentioned earlier?

But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.

That paragraph needed to include another issue, another example of traditional Islamist doctrine. It needed to include the word "dhimmitude," with some explanation of the submissive state that almost certainly awaits some minorities under an Islamist coalition government. At this point, it is also important to remember the hard numbers in the Pew Research Center survey released last April. As I summarized that survey for Scripps Howard:

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. ... Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities.

Do the Coptic people, the ancient Egyptians, need to be mentioned higher in this story? Well, they are about 10 percent of the nation's population. At this point, African Americans are about 12.5 percent of the population here in the United States. Try to imagine how seriously journalists would take (and validly so) any electoral trend that constituted a threat to their freedom and safety, especially discussions of whether they need to flee their nation.

Stay tuned as the Egyptian voting reaches out into villages and rural areas.

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