Analysis: Muslim Brothers victory all but assured

The Brotherhood’s message, its readily accessible lexicon of piety and justice, resonates with ordinary Egyptians.

By OREN KESSLER
November 28, 2011 06:44
4 minute read.
Man holds Palestinian and Egyptian flags at Cairo

Man holds Palestinian and Egyptian flags at Cairo rally 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The worst fears about the Arab revolts appear to be coming true – in each and every Arab state that experienced a large-scale popular uprising, Islamists are on the ascendant.

Initial results from Morocco show the Justice and Development Party is set to win parliamentary elections, Ennahda already dominates the governing coalition in relatively secular Tunisia, Syria’s opposition is predominantly Islamist, and in Libya, the chairman of the National Transitional Council sports a pronounced “prayer bump” on his forehead.

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So, too, in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and influential state and a bellwether of the region’s broader currents.

There, all signs point to the Muslim Brotherhood – the godfather of all Islamist movements and Egypt’s best-organized institution – as poised to emerge easily as the biggest winner from Monday’s parliamentary vote.

Egypt remains a largely poor, underdeveloped country where three in 10 people are illiterate and four in 10 live on less than $2 a day.

The Brotherhood’s message, its readily accessible lexicon of piety and justice, resonates with ordinary Egyptians unfamiliar with the intricacies of the democratic process and plethora of parties that have sprung up in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.

Egypt is also a deeply conservative society. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April found 60 percent of Egyptians said the country’s “laws should strictly follow the teachings” of the Koran. In results that were shocking to many in the West, 82% said adulterers should be stoned, 84% said people who leave Islam should face the death penalty and 77% said thieves should be flogged or have their hands cut off.

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In a society as conservative as Egypt’s, Islamism and Shari’a are not dirty words. The Pew poll found that 75% of respondents had a positive view of the Brotherhood, though, somewhat paradoxically, only 17% said the movement should lead the government.

In parliamentary elections held in 2005, after Mubarak succumbed to US pressure and held freer (though not totally transparent) elections, Brotherhood-linked candidates took 20% of the seats – having contested only a third of available posts.

This time around, the Brotherhood – via its newly inaugurated Freedom and Justice Party – is contesting half the parliamentary seats, and its leaders have predicted it will take roughly 30% of the vote on Monday.

Virtually all credible pollsters predict the Brotherhood will take control of at least a plurality, if not a majority, of parliamentary mandates.

A survey in September by the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat found that 35% of Egyptians supported the Brotherhood and 21% opposed it.

Last week, an informal poll on Facebook found 38% in support of the Brotherhood, and a further 12% favoring Al-Nour, a party adhering to a radical form of Salafi Islam that makes the Brotherhood look moderate by comparison.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, estimated that the Brotherhood would dominate the election whatever the voter turnout, likely winning between 35% and 50% of the votes.

“If there is lower turnout, that puts the Muslim Brotherhood in at least a slightly stronger position because they can guarantee their own internal turnout,” he told Reuters. “They may even benefit from higher turnout, where a lot of ordinary Egyptians are going to the polls saying, ‘We don’t know who to vote for, but we’ve heard about the Muslim Brotherhood.’” A US-based Egyptian reform activist said smaller liberal parties simply couldn’t compete with the Brotherhood’s deep wellspring of support networks.

“The Brotherhood is well-organized and can mobilize activists and sympathizers in a way that liberal parties cannot, because they’re still new,” he said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the ruling military council.

The activist said he was also concerned elections wouldn’t be held fairly.

“When they had a referendum in March, areas with [less] Islamist representation had fewer polling stations,” he said. “In Upper Egypt, some Coptic villages didn’t have polling stations at all.

You don’t need to rig the ballot boxes. Gerrymandering and placement of the polling stations can influence the results in themselves.”

Kurt Werthmuller, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said the question was not whether the Brotherhood would emerge as Monday’s biggest winner, but only by how much.

“It’s a matter of how much they will win,” he said. “The question is how much will they take in parliamentary elections, and what their coalition will look like.”

He added that at the moment, he was not optimistic.

“In the big picture, there is a potential for small parties to have some kind of popularity.

The problem now is that they’re so fragmented,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see either house of the Egyptian parliament 100% dominated by Islamists, but they’ll certainly have the upper hand.”


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