Are Egyptians voting Ideologically?

Interpreting political behavior in a brand spanking new democracy such as Egypt is trying to become is littered with pitfalls, and these are multiplied when dealing with the Middle East.

The Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, has been depicted by some Western historians and social scientists as exceptionally impervious to democratic ideals and practices. Much of this Muslim or Arab exceptionalism derives from twentieth-century attempts to justify Western imperialism (rule over the Muslims for their own good by Europeans). Some of it is also rooted in apologetics for the Israel project, which is opposed by most Arabs and Muslims; if there is something wrong with the latter, then their complaints about the displacement and denationalization of the Palestinians can be dismissed. (Ironically, Israel under the Revisionist Likud Party is becoming less and less democratic itself, and many of the fundamentalist Jewish Haredim, now 8% of the population and growing, are no more democratic than the Saudi Wahhabis; so many of the arguments about “Islam” and Muslims and exceptionalism that had been made in the past increasingly could be applied to Israel itself).

The exceptionalism argument is ahistorical and peculiarly lacking in a comparative perspective. There is a major argument in modern German history about whether Germany was peculiar in lacking a national business class and in clinging to authoritarianism, save for the brief Weimar period, until the end of WW II. But then what of Spain? Italy? Austria? Hungary? (We are still not sure about Hungary, and Berlusconi’s Italy rather fell in the rankings). Which European countries were there, exactly, that did not have democracy imposed on them from the outside?

Then there are the other exceptionalisms. Most people who speak Chinese still live under relatively authoritarian governments, with Taiwan the major example of a Sinophone people’s transition toward parliamentary rule with regular contested elections. But just as being Muslim cannot possibly be related to people’s receptivity to democracy, neither can speaking Chinese.

There is something else going on. Most likely it has to do with the way the peasants of Egypt and Algeria made the transition to urban modernity, and likewise the Chinese. Some of the lack of democracy even derives from Western intervention against it (colonial regimes were poor teachers of democratic habits, and parliamentary regimes were overthrown by the West via coups from time to time, rather setting things back).

As for why Egyptians vote as they do, like any electorate they are complicated and even individual voters could go either way often. Egyptians did not give a majority to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis because a majority of them is pious (and 24% of Egyptians are definitely not hard line fundamentalists of the Salafi sort!) My interviewing suggests that in the parliamentary elections they wanted parties that a) were not connected to the corrupt and hated Hosni Mubarak and b) would be honest and transparent and avoid stealing from them or dunning them constantly for bribes. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis fit those bills. In contrast, a lot of the left had its roots in Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s progressive thought, and they were initially tainted with the brush of the longstanding military regime (Nasser was a leader of the Young Officers who made the 1952 coup, to which the current military junta is the heir).

But the Muslim Brotherhood made several major errors. They promised not to put up a candidate for president, to reassure people they weren’t trying to recreate Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, i.e. a one-party state. But then they reneged and put up Khairat al-Shater, a businessman with corruption convictions. They also tried to stack the committee charged with writing the constitution with their own members, causing even other Muslim forces to withdraw in disgust. And, they haven’t been good about reestablishing security, providing services, or bringing back the tourist trade.

As for the Salafis, they unwisely began talking about banning beer, and if there is one thing the Egyptian electorate is sure about it is that they like beer.

Ironically, you meet lots of Egyptian men with beards and prayer beads who are leftists, and clean-shaven, dapper men who are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. You suspect that they could fairly easily change their minds.

You have to think about what people are voting against, not just what they seem to be voting for. Last fall they were voting against the fulul, the remnants of Mubarak’s corrupt regime. This May, some large number of Egyptians are telling pollsters that they will be voting against a Muslim Brotherhood one-party state. They will be voting against Salafi puritanism. It is not that the Muslim fundamentalist candidate cannot win, but he now has high negatives to overcome.

Egyptian politics in this miraculous year is all about the rebound, not about the straight throw.

12 Responses

  1. Much of what you said rings true and I would like to point something out. When you mentioned:

    “there is one thing the Egyptian electorate is sure about it is that they like beer.”

    I found that a tall order, Juan. Beer is an alcoholic beverage and most practicing Muslims believe that consumption of alcohol is forbidden. So, I wonder which part of the electorate you are talking about.

  2. I always figured the reason they went with the Muslim Brotherhood is to reward the MB for the years of effort they made trying to confront the Mubarak regime, which they did mostly peacefully since the mid-80s. They played the Mubarak election game, putting up with thousands of arrests, and unfair electoral rules. One could argue that it was the complete exclusion of the MB from parliament in 2010 that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  3. Prof Cole, please forgive my changing topics but there is an unrelated question I want to ask.

    Recently, one of Iran’s top commanders said “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel.” –link. While it contradicts the official stance, it is absolutely a damaging statement. The anti-Iran crowd is using it as justification that Iran should have no nuclear program at all and attacks may be necessary to stop them. Plus they have begun mocking you and all of us that have rightly called the “wipe Israel off the map” quote a mistranslation.

    What happened? And what has been the clerical leadership’s response?

    • Here’s one take on the issue (the fun part is the comments, so much dissembling!): link to

      And Who Freaking Knows what it means? The Great Gamers have so thoroughly soured the milk, spoiled the nest, all that, that nobody can know anything any more, only follow ancient prejudices and tribal interests and the driving beat of the amygdala as it marimbas away on the rest of the notes in the limbic system.

      Gen. Curtis LeMay was pressing real hard, for a lot of years, to nuke the Soviet Union, and Vietnam, and any other old place, and here’s a good read, complete with lots of verbal saber rattling and all that sneaky-pete, surrogacy-based, “WHAT democracy? That’s just a selling point for Hidden Oligarchy” stuff. Robert Scherer’s “With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War” link to

      Just by way of reminding all of us that ‘stupid’ is not confined to just a few of us.

  4. I wish peace for all Egyptians during their uneasy transition from CIA-backed dictatorship to Muslim theocracy.

  5. The problem is that half of the population in Egypt are poor and illiterate and MB can bribe these needy people with a bag full of oil, rice, beans etc. and tell them to vote to their party , candidate and president . Also now people started to realize that MB r just another copy of ex national party.
    Now scaf tries to hold on to the rule and support shafik Mubarak last ex prime minister , so that the run off would be between shafik and moursy (mb candidate) . So people would have to vote for shafik to be ligimite and as if we didn’t have a rev. :(

  6. I find it hard to believe that these campaigners and officials that claim to know who will make it to the run-off have nearly as solid of data as they allege. Too often there is no much of whence this supposed information comes, and it seems peculiarly to coincide with what they want to believe is happening. Given that the voting is occurring across two days, exit polling does not seem be the primary source of the candidate-specific hype emanating from campaigners and official with deeply vested interests. It would seem probable that the most easily mobilizd voter bases are more likely to have showed up early (the Brotherhood, those with vested interests in supporting Shafiq).

  7. Unfortunately, Egypt’s first free presidential election is turning into a contest between those who are voting based on their hopes for a better future and those who are motivated by fear of what comes next. Perhaps the most striking example of this is that Copts have reportedly been voting en masse for Shafiq, a Mubarak apparatchik and the candidate least likely to introduce any major reforms. This is ironic because the Copts have suffered at the hands of the SCAF (google the Maspiro massacre). It’s easy to understand why Copts would be afraid of Mursi, the MB candidate. Ditto Abou El fotouh who has the backing for the Salafis.

    All Egyptian are addicted to law and order. It has always been safe to walk the streets of Cairo and, on that count, they want a candidate who will come down with an iron fist on lawbreakers – car thief gangs and the like. Again, that’s the fear factor at work.

    Those hoping for major structural economic change and an unrelenting war on corruption and poverty will vote for Hamdeen Sabahy – a pan-Arab socialist who will shake things up big time.

    Hope versus Fear – ain’t democracy grand.

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