The performance of the Islamist party Ennahda in the October23 Tunisian elections, in which it won 41.5 percent of the seats, has refocusedattention on the upcoming Egyptian elections scheduled to begin on November 28.Some analysts have minimized the Muslim Brotherhood’s prospects for success bypointing to polls suggesting that the group — the largest and best organizedin Egypt — hovers between 15 to 30 percent approval. It may be true that theBrotherhood isn’tas popular as we might think. But elections aren’t popularity contests. Infact, as the campaign unfolds, it appears likely that Egypt’s Islamists will doeven better than expected, just like their Tunisian counterparts.
In the run-up to the Tunisian elections, Ennahda was pollingaround 20 percent. Yet they ended up with nearly double. In elections –particularly founding elections in which new parties need to introducethemselves to voters across the country — organization and strategy are whatcounts, not high approval ratings. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood excels onboth counts. While most liberal and leftist parties are effectively startingfrom scratch, the Brotherhood already has a disciplined ground game, fine-tunedfrom three decades of contesting syndicate and national elections.
During last November’s parliamentary contest — arguably the mostfraudulent Egypt had ever seen — I had the chance to witness the Brotherhood’s”get-out-the-vote” operation up close. One Brotherhood campaign worker, perhapsunaware it would sound somewhat implausible, told me that the organization hasan internal vote turnout of nearly 100 percent. In other words, everyone who isan active Muslim Brotherhood member is expected to vote and actually does. Evenif this is a stretch, it is true that the Brotherhood, in part because it is areligious movement rather than a political party, has the sort oforganizational discipline of which competing parties can only dream.
This discipline is deeply rooted in the organization’sculture. Each Muslim Brotherhood member signs on to a rigorous educationalcurriculum and is part of something called an usra, or family, which meets weekly. If a Brother chooses to stayhome on election day, other Brothers will know. But it’s not just a matter ofpeer expectations. At each pollingstation, there is a Brotherhood coordinator who essentially does a whip count. Becausethe number of voters at a particular polling station can be quite small — withthe number of Brothers in the hundreds — this is feasible in many districts.The “whip” stays there the entire day, watching who comes and goes and talliesup the figures. If you were supposed to go and didn’t, the whip will know.Perhaps sensing my skepticism, one such whip assured me, “Well, you have tounderstand — I know every single Brother who lives in the area.
With an electoral system that is, in the wordsof one activist, “algorithmically complicated,” knowing your district takes oneven more importance. As Daphne McCurdy pointed out in a recent POMED report on Tunisia,”Most polling in Tunisia has focused on nationwide levels of support, entirelyoverlooking variation within specific electoral districts.” Ennahda was theonly party that had coverage throughout the country, with tailored strategiesfor each district, including rural areas. Here, the Brotherhood has yet anotherbuilt-in advantage. With 88 deputies in the previous parliament (2005-2010),the group was able to provide a greater array of services on the local leveland build stronger relations with constituents.
What about the Brotherhood’s competition? The Brotherhood’spolitical arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is joined by Ayman Nour’sliberal al-Ghad party, the Nasserist Karama party, and a smattering of smallerparties, forming the “Democratic Alliance” list. There are four other majorlists, three of which have a liberal or leftist orientation (Egyptian Bloc, theRevolution Continues, and the Wafd list). With their considerable funding and patronage networks,the right-of-center Wafd party, headed bymulti-millionaire Al-Sayyid Badawy, and remnants of the old ruling NationalDemocratic Party, are also well positioned to secure a significant share of thevote.
For their part, the newly formed liberal parties havesuffered from an inability to articulate a clear ideology or agenda — a majorfailing in a country where “liberalism” continues to have a negativeconnotation. Many liberal parties have sometimes appeared to stand for littlemore than not being Islamist, opting to stoke public fears of impendingtheocracy. Such a strategy is likely to backfire in a country where 67 percentof Egyptians say that laws should strictly follow the Quran’s teachings, whileanother 27 percent say that they should in some way follow the values andprinciples of Islam, according to an April Pew poll. In Tunisia, theProgressive Democratic Party, which positioned itself as the anti-Islamistchoice, got pummeled in the polls, while the two liberal parties thatmaintained good relations with Ennahda — Congress for the Republic andEttakatol — faired relatively well, finishing in second and third placerespectively.
This leaves an obvious course for leftist and liberal parties,one that offers considerably more promise — a razor-sharp focus on Egypt’smounting economic troubles. But this, too, is challenging, as most parties –leftist or not — use similar rhetoric on the economy: Poverty is bad; jobs aregood; social justice is better, and so on. As Ayesha Sabayala of the EconomistIntelligence Unit pointed out regarding Tunisia, “If you look at parties’ manifestos, with the exception ofthe far left parties, most have the same economic objectives: to reduceunemployment and increase infrastructure in interior.” The Muslim Brotherhoodhas smartly positioned itself as a voice for the poor, even though its economicplatform (something designed more for foreign investors and the internationalcommunity) is surprisingly free market-oriented. Recently, for example, thegroup launched “Millioniyyatal-Khayr” (the million-man act of goodwill), an initiative to provide 1.5million kilos of meat to 5 million Egyptians for the Eid al-Adha holiday.
There is still thepossibility that the Brotherhood may underperform — as they did in the recentDoctors’ Syndicate elections. But, be careful what you wish for. Thealternative to moderate Islamists may very well be less moderate Islamists. Well before the Arab Spring, Brotherhood leaders often told methat their youth were increasingly being swayed by Salafi ideas. OneBrotherhood official told me that Salafis outnumbered them five to one. Salafigroups have repeatedly sounded ambitious notes, with one leader claiming that they wouldwin 30 percent of the seats. Ambitious as they are, Salafis are politicalnovices, with virtually no experience running parliamentary campaigns. But theyare proving quick learners and have managed to unify their ranks, bringingtogether four Salafi parties under the banner of the “Islamic alliance.”Moreover, liberal claims (or hopes) that Salafis are well outside of themainstream may be wishful thinking. In aDecember 2010 poll,82 percent of Egyptians said they favored stoning adulterers, while 77 percentsupported cutting off the hands of thieves. The only movement besides the Brotherhood with anationwide grassroots base, Salafis have taken to organizing traffic incongested areas of Alexandria, engage in door-to-door education campaigns, andprovide health services to the poor.
Theseelections, then, are not necessarily about ideas. They are about voters. And,in this respect, Egypt’s elections are looking a lot like they do in the UnitedStates. The “good guys,” whoever they are, don’t always win. Indeed, ifIslamist parties do as well they might — winning upwards of 50 percent of thevote — the alarmism and hand wringing from Western quarters will beconsiderable. The important metric for Egypt’s troubled transition, though,isn’t who wins, but rather, if Egyptians have the opportunity to choose theirown representatives free of intimidation and interference. Democracy, asWestern democracies have long known, is about the right to make the wrongchoice.
Shadi Hamid is director ofresearch at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center forMiddle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.