In the early days of the Egyptian revolution, one of the significant fears, especially in the West, was that a transition to democratic rule would usher in an Islamic government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. This has since been established as the conventional wisdom, even in Egypt. Liberal groups urge postponing anticipated September parliamentary elections, in order to gain more time to form viable political parties able to compete with the newly created and Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party.
Conventional wisdom was established following the results of the March 19 popular referendum on amendments to the Egyptian constitution. A yes vote was the adopted position by Islamist groups, many of which portrayed the effort as a defense of religion. They won overwhelmingly, with 77% of the vote, in unprecedented 40% voter turnout.
Yet in recent days there have been a few contrarian indicators concerning widespread popular support for the Brotherhood. Gallop conducted a poll in which only 15% said they support the group. The poll does match the uncertain and contradictory state of Egyptian politics, however, for although only 1% support a theocracy, 69% believe religious leaders should have an advisory role in legislation. Depending on how campaign rhetoric is spun, the population may vote Islamist out of fear from godless liberals, or else run screaming out of fear of becoming a new Iran. Yet in terms of tangible support, if the poll is accurate, the Muslim Brotherhood is not inherently perched to assume political power.
Part of the assumption of Brotherhood popularity is built upon their reputation of providing support to the poor in social services. This is true from their inception, and in the 1940s they built a wide network of service provision throughout rural and urban Egypt. Yet in the more recent decades under Mubarak in which the Brotherhood was an outlawed, though tolerated, social presence and the only semi-legitimate opposition political force, measuring and verifying their welfare reach became more difficult. Nevertheless, the assumption remained.
This assumption has been challenged in research conducted by Daniella Pioppi. She argues:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s social activities after the Nasser parenthesis have never reached the levels of diffusion and organization of the 1930s and 1940s. Furthermore, they are generally aimed at the middle to upper classes rather than the most disadvantaged social strata. Since the repression cycle that started in the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s social activities have been drastically reduced and do not seem to play a significant role in popular mobilization, not least for lack of a clear political and social project.
Her paper, and others, can be found here.
Excepting the previously stated referendum, Egypt has not had open, democratic elections for over fifty years. In the absence of criteria by which to judge, it is nearly impossible to forecast the electoral choices of over 80 million Egyptians, most of whom have been depoliticized their entire life. Will the ‘uneducated, religious masses’ be swayed to vote Islamist, believing this to be a vote for God? Will the ‘taste of freedom and liberty’ make them forswear the Muslim Brotherhood, widely known as an authoritarian organization in its own right? No one knows. Neither the Gallop poll, nor the referendum should be taken as an accurate gauge of political currents.
Politics is always full of surprises. In all likelihood, an unfettered election process will produce nothing less, no matter what the end result may be.