By Barry Rubin
Several recent polls purport to show the Muslim Brotherhood is unpopular in Egypt. An article in the Atlantic is particularly laughable, claiming the Brotherhood is less popular than Richard Nixon when he resigned!
The most important single point is this: the Brotherhood isn’t at an “unpopular” 17 percent but a very popular 34% from Egyptian voters who declared support for a party that might win seats. In other words, one in every three Egyptians who have decided and will have a real role in the outcome are ready to cast their ballots for the Brotherhood. It is the largest single party. And it has advantages that make it likely to get more than 33 percent of the seats.
That isn’t bad in an election with more than 20 parties. With 20 political parties would you call the one supported by one-third of decided voters “unpopular”? In the United States you need 50 percent plus one vote to win but the current ruling parties in multi-party Israel, Holland, and Turkey came to power with that level of direct support. In the last German elections, the Christian Democratic Union won with 27 percent of the votes (which yielded 31% of the seats); the Socialists have won French parliamentary elections with 39 percent.
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Here are my adjusted figures for parties based on voters who back a party likely to win seats (more than 5 percent support in the polls). I am not saying this analysis is perfect (for example, a party with 5 percent might get 2.5 percent of the seats due to half being elected on a national level) but it does give a good general idea of the situation.
1, Islamists: 34% Muslim Brotherhood (Freedom and Justice Party). Note that Salafist (even more radical) Islamist groups don’t do well. Islamist voters are uniting behind the Brotherhood despite all the talk of splits.
2. Pro-Old Regime: 14% National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s old party.
3. Liberal, pro-democratic
14% Free Egyptians Party, a liberal, anti-Islamist party founded by big businessman Naguib Sawiris.
10% Justice Party. This is the party most associated with the Facebook kids and well-known opposition leaders.
22% Al-Wafd Party, historic liberal party.
Total for liberals: 46% That is impressive but far less than it seems. Keep in mind, though, that it is better to have 34% for one candidate than 46% for three. In a district with that outcome the Brotherhood would win.
Moreover, liberals are badly divided. The Wafd has at times toyed with a Brotherhood alliance, while the Justice Party has some far left leanings. The Free Egyptians seem to be a really serious anti-Islamist party but it is largely dependent on the largesse of one man. If liberals got one-third of the seats they could block the Brotherhood from power but not from having tremendous influence. By the same token, the Brotherhood would block a liberal majority. These three parties don’t like each other though if they cooperate and make election agreements that are implemented this might really change things.
So far i’ve left out the divided radical left, four parties combining hardline anti-American, neo-Marxist and radical nationalist views: Egyptian Labor, ElGhad Party, Tagamoe, and ElKarama. All together, they take 19 percent. But since they are rivals they would probably get about 10% of the seats.
The bottom line is that the Brotherhood will be the most powerful party in Egypt’s first election. There are a number of reasons to think it would get more than 34 percent:
–It is quite likely that just five parties—Brotherhood, Wafd, Justice, Free Egyptians, New Democratic Party—will have any significant representation. With many votes “wasted,” the Brotherhood will have the advantage as the largest single party and might well take 40 percent of the seats.
–The Brotherhood could win in many districts merely by coming in first albeit with only a minority of overall ballots. Liberal parties will “steal” votes from each other and put Brotherhood candidates into office in many places. Hamas only won the Palestinian elections because Fatah candidates ran against each other.
—Egypt’s first elected government will be very unpopular within a year or two. The economy is going to collapse; promises cannot be kept. The Brotherhood might prefer to be in the opposition during this period to reap more support in future.
–The Brotherhood can coopt independent candidates using ideology, offers of electoral backing, or rewards in parliament (such as—if you excuse the expression–“pork” projects for their districts). Thus, the Brotherhood in parliament could command seats outside of its own official delegation more easily than its rivals.
–Given its better organization, the Brotherhood will get its voters out on election day. Intimidation and the pressure for conformity so powerful in Egyptian society will also count, especially in the many tradition-oriented villages and poor areas of the big cities.
–Don’t assume the far left and Brotherhood won’t cooperate. They have similar views on foreign policy.
–Presumably the National Democratic Party will be a pariah and neither liberal nor Islamist blocs will work with it. Thus, another 14 percent of the seats will be irrelevant in forming any coalition, proportionately increasing the Brotherhood’s numerical edge. Liberals cannot deal with the hated old regime party but leaders of the National Democratic Party could make a deal with the Brotherhood in order to keep their privileges. Brotherhood supporters would support such a bargain if it helped obtain their main priorities.
I never thought the Brotherhood will get a majority. My concern is that it will control around 40 percent of the seats, be the largest single bloc, and get most of what it wants in a new constitution. The president will most likely be Amr Moussa, a radical nationalist who opposes Islamism but will probably buy off the Brotherhood, Salafists, and radical left with a militant foreign policy.
(Fun Fact: In my parallel analysis of the Palestinian elections, I predicted the same thing about Hamas, that it would be the largest party and most powerful single bloc. In fact, it won. Perhaps I’m being too cautious over the Brotherhood’s prospects in Egypt, too.)
In such a situation, the idea that the Egyptian government would be friendly to the United States is laughable. At most it would do the bare minimum to keep U.S. aid. The Obama Administration is likely to be easy to please so it can claim a diplomatic success with Egypt.
Of course, I will have plenty of time to revise my analysis as the campaign develops. But the key factor that would soundly defeat the Brotherhood–unity and good organization on the liberal side—-just isn’t there. As usual, note that literally none of the points suggested above has appeared in a mass media determined to prove that there’s nothing to worry about.
Methodology: Taking the Newsweek poll, I’ve recalculated by dropping the no opinion and “other” categories as well as the support for parties with less than 5 percent. I assume that small party votes will be largely wasted and that undecided voters will choose along the same lines as decided voters.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports.