The Middle East Channel

Mapping Egypt’s electorate

As Egypt nears its upcoming presidential elections, the country remains mired in continued political instability and the fog of events that has characterized the country’s opaque transition. As a result, crises remain unexplained and inscrutable, further complicating the ability to gauge voter sentiment with any degree of confidence. Coupled with the rudimentary history of public ...


As Egypt nears its upcoming presidential elections, the country remains mired in continued political instability and the fog of events that has characterized the country’s opaque transition. As a result, crises remain unexplained and inscrutable, further complicating the ability to gauge voter sentiment with any degree of confidence. Coupled with the rudimentary history of public polling and their utter unreliability in the Egyptian context, predictions about electoral outcomes should be approached with the utmost degree of caution. While signs point to a fragmented voter distribution in the first round of voting, there is much we still do not know about the Egyptian electorate and voter behavior. However, based on recent interviews and meetings with Egyptian political leaders and commentators, it is clear that a backlash has developed against the Islamist-led parliament. The scope and breadth of that backlash will now determine whether the compromised former foreign minister of Egypt, Amr Moussa, becomes the country’s next president.  

The most tangible reference point for the Egyptian electorate is quite obviously the recent parliamentary elections, which saw the electoral dominance of Islamist politics. With the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) garnering approximately 43 percent of the seats of the dominant lower house of parliament coupled with the outsized showing of their more hardline electoral rivals, led by the Salafi al-Nour party securing approximately 25 percent of seats, Egyptian voters displayed a very clear preference for Islamist politics. But it would be a mistake to draw a straight line from those results to June 21, when the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission will announce the winner following a likely run-off. Islamist presidential candidates such as Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the moderate Islamist who was a long-time member and reformist within the Muslim Brotherhood, and Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the chairman of the FJP, are clearly among the handful of legitimate contenders; but prospects for their electoral success based on previous performance by Islamist candidates, even in a run-off scenario, is not a foregone conclusion. Much has happened in recent months that could scramble voter allegiance and the nature of a national campaign can significantly diverge from the localized aspects of a parliamentary contest.

The results of Egypt’s staggered parliamentary voting should instead be seen as the beginning of political life and culture in Egypt and, in many ways, more a reflection about the end of the Mubarak era than a durable predictor of future performance. In keeping with regional trends following the crushing defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel and the rise of religious revivalism in the Arab world, Egypt’s Islamist opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, was able to maintain coherence in the face of cyclical repression. Previously apolitical Salafis were able to seamlessly translate their broad-based social networks to political use. These organizational advantages were amplified by the general tenor of Egyptian society, which has skewed toward greater emphasis on the outward displays of piety and an all-encompassing sense of the role of religion in public life.

But the majority of this support is not stridently ideological. Formal membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively small and can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. In addition to organizational capacity, this electoral success must also be understood as a function of widespread soft support. The clearest indication of this phenomenon is the resilient popularity of the Egyptian military, which remains the country’s most revered and credible institution despite the checkered political tenure of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during the transitional period. Despite much tactical cooperation since the fall of the Mubarak regime and a clear convergence of interests throughout much of the transitional period, for most Islamist cadres the military remains a force to be feared. In this sense, 1954, when the ascendant Gamal Abdel Nasser turned on Egypt’s Islamists, remains a touchstone for many Egyptian Islamists. Yet for broad segments of Egyptian society who voted for Islamist political parties, support for the military remains quite strong. This suggests a degree of cognitive dissonance for the committed supporters who place their trust exclusively in the military or the Brotherhood, as the two organizations are bitter and historic rivals. But for a vast swath of public opinion, there’s no contradiction in supporting a strong nationalist military and a powerful Muslim Brotherhood — they are understood to be symbiotic national institutions, in line with the populist mood that has gripped the country since the fall of the former regime.

The Egyptian military’s enduring popularity, despite the SCAF’s often incompetent stewardship of the transition, is an important signal as to the hierarchy of allegiances at play in Egyptian political life. With the military increasingly at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, some portion of the Ikhwan’s popular support will inevitably be eroded. This is particularly the case as the sense of instability that has fuelled popular resentment of mass mobilization and street activism has continued, undermining the position of the Egyptian political class, which has sought political leverage through the politics of protest. For many, the military remains a red line and the only institution standing between Egypt and chaos. In the wake of the disastrous decision to shift protests to the Abbasiya district of Cairo to the site of the ministry of defense, the narrative put forward by the SCAF in the wake of violent clashes has found renewed traction. In fact, the alleged appearance of weapons among protesters that included Salafi supporters of the disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail provided a convenient launching point to push forward varied lines of rhetorical attack against multiple targets, including Islamists.    

This position affords the SCAF a powerful perch from which to play politics. While the SCAF will not engage in centralized fraud and vote-rigging, it will seek to shape the media environment in ways that are favorable to the political outcomes it seeks. With state media continuing to be the primary source of news and information for a large number of Egyptians, the SCAF has wide berth to propagandize and manage the electoral environment and popular mood. While no definitive proof exists, the SCAF also appears willing to use the institutions of the state, which remain intact from the Mubarak era, to police the boundaries of competition. This does not suggest that the SCAF can dictate an electoral outcome. There remains heated and uncontrollable electioneering and the results are an unknown for all involved, including the general public, the political class, and the SCAF. But in light of the politicized role of the SCAF, the system cannot be described as fully free and fair. As such, the SCAF will have some influence in how Egyptians choose to vote and their preferences do not lie with any of the Islamist candidates.

Many of the trends that have reinforced the position of the Egyptian military have also played out in the recent performance of the newly-seated parliament, which has been mired in second-order debates and unable to legislate in the face of growing popular impatience and difficult economic conditions. This paralysis is a function of design as laid out in the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration, which was largely drafted by the SCAF with no democratic legitimacy and delineated Egypt’s transitional constitutional arrangements. In their efforts to support the SCAF’s suggested transitional timeline, which they believed would work to their electoral advantage, the Muslim Brotherhood was wholly supportive of the roadmap that would, ironically, cripple their ability to exercise any degree of institutional power during the transition. However, the nuance of constitutional analysis is far from the minds of many voters and the image that endures following its seating is the ineffectual role of parliament in addressing any of the country’s crises. The Muslim Brotherhood’s short and unhappy experience with institutional power has clearly eroded some degree of their widespread support.  

Such conclusions are manifestly unfair in light of the constricting legal environment in which this parliament operates, but they are also inevitably now part of the conventional wisdom that is fuelling a backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood. These notions were further amplified by the Muslim Brotherhood-led political fiasco that resulted in the suspension of the constituent assembly tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution. Serious jurisdictional and jurisprudential questions remain regarding the propriety of the administrative court decision that suspended the assembly, but the inability of parliament to manage its primary task furthered an impression of incompetence, political naiveté, and power-hungry opportunism. 

In the realm of party politics, the embryonic state of political organization dilutes the immediate impact of these setbacks for the Ikhwan and their Islamist allies, primarily because there are as of yet very few credible alternatives to the FJP. But in a national election in which strong personalities with name recognition will be on the ballot, the deficiencies of the current political party system will not be dispositive in determining the final result.

Of course, the FJP, and the Salafis to a lesser extent, will undoubtedly continue to hold a decisive organizational edge as was demonstrated in the parliamentary elections. This means that their chances to advance to the next round of voting should not be underestimated and that the emerging consensus regarding Morsi’s likely failure should be interrogated. In fact, Morsi will almost certainly outperform current polling projections. However, national elections represent a much different competition than district-based local elections and leadership attributes and charisma will play a larger part in voter selection. In this sense, the lackluster performance of Morsi, their formulaic substitute nominee, following the procedural disqualification of their preferred candidate Khairat el-Shater, is another reason for concern for the Muslim Brotherhood. In the event of high voter turnout, this advantage would also be somewhat blunted as less committed, casual voters take to the polls.

The recent blowback against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties will also likely have some downside effects on Aboul Fotouh who, until last week’s presidential debate with Amr Moussa, appeared to be a much stronger candidate than Morsi. With a broader range of supporters and some degree of crossover appeal, Aboul Fotouh has managed to garner support from hardline Salafis and some liberal and leftist activists. But his lack of experience and his association with the politics of protest could prove an uneasy fit with the sizable number of Egyptians yearning for stability who have come to associate activism with instability. To the extent he remains associated as an Islamist candidate, notions of balanced governance will also work against him as they will Morsi, with some voters reluctant to give Islamists power of both parliament and president. While this could aid Moussa’s bid, it could also divert votes to non-Islamist candidates who do not bear the albatross of association with the former regime, such as the Nasserist presidential candidate and longtime opposition figure, Hamdeen Sabahi. However, recent events might prove a much larger challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood than the campaign of Aboul Fotouh, who remains a formidable candidate with a broader base of support despite some reservations regarding his uneven debate performance.

While it is premature to extrapolate electoral disaster for Islamists based on the vagaries of public sentiment, the current mood in Egypt and the unique features of a national election suggest that unlike the parliamentary elections, non-Islamist candidates will stand a fair chance of competing seriously in the presidential vote. If a non-Islamist such as Amr Moussa becomes Egypt’s next president, it will represent a dramatic reversal for Islamists politics from the lofty results achieved during the parliamentary vote. Based on the alternative viable choices, it will also be an important indicator of Egyptian society’s appetite for far-reaching reform.

Perhaps most consequentially, defeat at the polls will bring back a measure of humility to Egypt’s recently ascendant Islamists, who have proceeded since elections as if majoritarianism is wholly consonant with their inevitable domination of Egyptian politics. This inability to conceive of themselves as anything but the undiluted reflection of Egyptian society has shifted politics away from any notions of consensus and further polarized Egypt’s fragmented political class. Even for those who see the non-Islamist presidential contenders as discredited representatives of the Mubarak regime, an Islamist political defeat will have tangible and salutary effects on the political and constitutional-drafting process. 

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation.

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