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.