Explaining the Muslim Brotherhood's Electoral Success in Egypt: Examining the Parliamentary Elections of 2011 and Presidential Election of 2012
From the 1980s to the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt out-performed the secular opposition movements during that time. Explanations for this are varied, with scholars claiming that it is the result of factors such as the Brotherhood’s superior organizational power1 or the ‘special’ power of Islam2. However, many of these theories are isolated from one another and do not take into account other significant factors, so one must carefully scrutinize these theories and determine which ones are most plausible.
The most convincing arguments for the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance must be divided into two sections: their success in parliamentary elections under Mubarak and the elections following the ousting of Mubarak in 2011. In regards to the elections under Mubarak, I argue that the Brotherhood’s focus on the middle class, the actions by the state, and mistakes made by the secular opposition greatly helped them achieve more success than other opposition parties in the Mubarak era. In the elections of 2011 and 2012, the Brotherhood’s focus on economics, their vague platform, wide variety of members, and religious networks helped them achieve seemingly overwhelming victories.
The Presidential election forced Egyptians to vote for the Brotherhood as the lesser of two evils.
First, the focus of the essay will be on the Muslim Brotherhood’s success during the Mubarak Era and the various theories surrounding this. The first theory discussed is one where the Muslim Brotherhood’s success comes from economic underdevelopment. The argument is that the Muslim Brotherhood provided services to the poor, who in turn supported the Brotherhood and gave them the votes they needed to succeed34.
However, this argument is problematic for several reasons. First, the security services did not allow the Brotherhood to provide social services to the poor consistently, and regularly intervened to enforce draconian laws5. While the Brotherhood still insisted on helping the poor by providing services, such as providing blankets to families in need6, this did not translate into votes, as few people who used their social services ended up actually voting for them7. Additionally, the Brotherhood had to compete with the regime in providing social services. Mubarak’s regime had a massive patronage system in place, which regularly encouraged the poor vote for the Egypt’s ruling party, the NDP8.
Mubarak’s regime had a massive patronage system in place, which regularly encouraged the poor vote for the Egypt’s ruling party.
The next argument that must be addressed is the so-called ‘special’ nature of Islam, in which Muslims feel obligated to create an Islamist government based upon Sharia9. However, when making this argument, this does not explain that while many Muslims believe in Sharia, many often vote for other parties10. Another argument made is that the Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are more disciplined than secular groups, thus making them more effective11. This is tricky because Islamist groups do not have one convergent model of organization, making such a blanket statement problematic12.
Additionally, in his work Counting Islam, researcher Tarek Masoud tests the theory that Islamist groups were more organized than leftist groups. By testing their organization through a quantitative research model, Mansoud found that leftist groups were just as organized as Islamists13. Another theory is that this was the result of repression by the Mubarak regime against the leftists14. However, the Brotherhood was often the subject of repression as well. Their influence was regularly curtailed by the Mubarak regime, which was concerned with the Brotherhood’s surge in popularity from the early 1980s onward15. That being said, these attempts provided mixed results, as the Brotherhood maintained some their social networks throughout this period.
While keeping these various theories in mind, there are several theories that are more plausible, the first of which being the relaxation of restrictions against Islamists in the 1980s by Mubarak. In the wake of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Hosni Mubarak wished to achieve stability in Egypt, meaning he needed to accommodate more moderate Islamist groups16. Additionally, because of the recent peace with Israel, Mubarak had to build relations with the West because he alienated the other Arab States and the Soviet Union, and he chose to build relations by limited democratization17.
Mubarak allowed for Brotherhood members to return from exile, loosened laws regarding professional syndicates, and allowed the Brotherhood to ally themselves with the Wafd party in order to run for parliament18. Additionally, the state often supported the Brotherhood’s religious values, but only if it remained outside the political arena19. However, this accommodation changed in the 1990s and 2000s, when the Mubarak regime cracked down upon the Brotherhood and worked to greatly limit their power in elections20. Mubarak did this as a result of fears that the Brotherhood would challenge his power. However, this brief period of accommodation helped the Brotherhood sew the seeds of their influence, as was seen in the relatively free 2005 parliamentary elections, where the Brotherhood’s candidate who ran as independents were very successful21.
Second, the Brotherhood’s focus on the educated middle class greatly helped them gain support. The educated middle class is a strategic class because of its relative wealth. While the middle class is far from being well off, they had enough money to choose their votes based on ideology. The ruling class gained support as a result of patronage among the poor, but this does not sway the middle class as easily because of their relative wealth22. The middle class was also too poor to benefit from regime corruption, thus making them unlikely to vote for the regime23. The Brotherhood worked to gain their support in several ways. First, they worked to offer social services that benefited the middle class. This included ensuring that they obtain government services such as scholarships and providing programs such as how to fill out tax forms24.
Also, they focused on university campuses and professional syndicates. In regards to university campuses, they provided incentives to students by providing cheap books or study groups25 and ran candidates in student unions26. Additionally, students were further incentivized to join because of the Brotherhood’s virtual control of many professional syndicates. Members of the Brotherhood who were interested in becoming involved in syndicates were the middle generation of the Brotherhood, who were former student leaders themselves27. These members, once elected, handled issues such as corruption and financial mismanagement in the syndicates, impressing the members and fostering an image of the Brotherhood as clean and responsible28. These actions proved to be very impactful on the middle class. The Brotherhood were more likely to compete in more affluent areas, and in these more relatively affluent areas they did much better than in other areas29.
Lastly, other opposition parties’ lack failures in obtaining strong support from citizens gave the Muslim Brotherhood a great advantage in elections. One of the major opposition groups in Egypt was leftist parties, but their lack of popularity was for a variety of problem. First, many leftist organizations rely on labor unions for support, but because of Egypt’s mostly agrarian population, the popularity of these organizations was small and were often the subject of state control30. Second, a significant piece of many leftist political platforms in Egypt is redistribution of wealth and strong welfare state. However, because of the large state run patronage system, those who would be interested in the leftist platform instead decided to vote for the state31. These features, among others, greatly harmed the leftist organizations and allowed the Brotherhood to take its place as the primary opposition to Mubarak.
After Mubarak’s ousting in 2011, there were parliamentary and presidential elections where the Brotherhood won a plurality of seats in parliament and voters elected Mohamed Morsi to be the president of Egypt32. There was much speculation as to why this occurred, with many using the same theories that were used during the Mubarak era, such as greater organization and an Islamic advantage, and these theories are yet again plagued with similar issues with some exceptions. In regards to targeting the poor, the argument became more legitimate after the toppling of the Mubarak regime.
This is because after the toppling of the Mubarak regime, the vote-buying establishment was dismembered, thus giving all parties the opportunity to obtain a vital voting bloc33. The Muslim Brotherhood did indeed take advantage of this, and they did so with their emphasis on economics, which will be discussed later, and its own use of patronage. The Muslim Brotherhood provided small items such as cooking oil, provided discount food on election day, and provided school courses as a way to demonstrate their commitment to supporters of the Brotherhood and thus convince citizens to vote in their favor34. But, this was far from the only method used to ensure a Brotherhood victory.
The Brotherhood’s focus on economics proved to be a highly significant reason for the success of the Brotherhood. The vast majority of Egyptians believed that the economy was the biggest concern for them, and the Brotherhood capitalized on this and made the economy, not Islam, the primary focus of their campaign35. Egyptians were interested in several economic issues, such as wealth redistribution and ending economic corruption such as needing connections in order to get a high paying job.
The Brotherhood was incredibly vague regarding their economic platform, which led to some confusion among voters. Voters believed that the Brotherhood were champions of wealth redistribution36, when in reality they were pro-free market capitalists who stressed the need for some government regulations37. This belief among voters helped the Brotherhood with the lower classes, further adding to their voting base. When the Brotherhood failed to act on their perceived platform, voters turned against the Brotherhood38. As a result of this, the amount of votes for Brotherhood candidates significantly declined after the Parliamentary Elections of 2011.
The Brotherhood also achieved popularity as a result of their vague platform. The Brotherhood would often insist that Islam was the solution to the country’s problems, but neglected to mention how or according to whose interpretation39. This vague interpretation of Islam was attractive to many people, as one could superimpose their interpretation of Islam as the way the Muslim Brotherhood would achieve their goals. Also, the factions within the Brotherhood contributed to the lack of clarity of their platform. In the Brotherhood, there were three major factions. The da’wa faction is ideologically conservative and controls bureaucratic operations and allocation of resources in the Brotherhood40. The pragmatic conservatives, or the mainstream faction of the Brotherhood, still had a conservative outlook, but with an emphasis on engagement and participation41.
Lastly, there are the reformists, who placed emphasis on party pluralism and women’s rights in the Brotherhood’s platform. The reformists in the Brotherhood became involved in movements such as the Kefaya movement as individuals42, and these reformists in the Brotherhood were also the only political faction involved in the day to day activities in Tahrir Square during the 2011 Revolution in Egypt43. The existence of these factions caused great confusion among citizens, many of whom believed that the Brotherhood had greater democratic leanings as a result of their involvement in the 2011 Revolution. This caused support for the Brotherhood among the more democratically minded Egyptians, further helping the Brotherhood achieve victory.
The use of networks by the Brotherhood also helped them achieve victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections. The Brotherhood utilized vast social and religious networks that they had cultivated over the past three decades, which had been achieved by working in communities, building trust, and providing social services44. This is in stark contrast to the secular political parties, who only had a mere ten months to create connections that the Brotherhood had cultivated over the span of decades45. Thus, it is no surprise that the Brotherhood utilized their networks much more than their secular counterparts ever could.
Lastly, the presidential election forced Egyptians to vote for the Brotherhood as the lesser of two evils. In the presidential elections of 2012, the competition became a run-off between Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, and Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak who personified the old regime46. Many Egyptians were unhappy with these two selections, so they had to choose the candidate who they disliked the least, which turned out to be Mohammad Morsi47.
The Brotherhood’s success in elections both during and after Hosni Mubarak sparked debate as to how the Brotherhood achieved this. These theories included the ‘special’ nature of Islam, a focus on either the poor or the middle class, or that Islamic groups were better organized than secular groups. Many of these theories had issues that make their plausibility questionable, but certain theories, such as an emphasis on the middle class, a vague political platform, and brief accommodation by the Mubarak regime allowed for the Brotherhood to succeed in elections. One should see these factors as complementary in nature, instead of being separate individual factors that are independent from one another. Each factor played an important part in the Brotherhood’s success and if one of these factors was removed, the Brotherhood may not have achieved the same electoral victories as they did.