The Brothers' Numbers

The Egyptian electoral commission’s decision to ban the country’s top three presidential candidates has made it very difficult to predict anything about the upcoming vote. However, once the initial shock from the surprise disqualification of Muslim Brother Khairat al-Shater, Mubarak right-hand man Omar Suleiman, and Salafi Hazem Abu Ismail dies down, we’re still dealing with the same electorate that in the November-January parliamentary elections gave nearly 40 percent of its vote to the Brothers and another 25 percent to the Salafis.  Does this mean that the Brothers merely have to put up their backup candidate, Mohammed Mursi, and let him catch the Islamist wave in al-Shater’s stead? Probably not, actually – some recent poll numbers suggest that the Brother’s popularity was already in rapid decline, and that although their support may have been broad, it wasn’t very deep.

Islamist parties typically perform best in the first competitive elections after a long period of authoritarian rule. Religious parties may have a hardcore ideological base but that’s not where most of their votes originate. Instead, many voters see in the religious groups their best hope for a dramatic change from politics-as-usual. But inevitably, the Islamists must confront the same challenges as any other political force must, encountering resistance, searching for unlikely bedfellows, handing out plum posts to supporters, and making compromises. Because of this, they are bound to disappoint. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers were likely to lose support from the moment that Saad al-Katatni took the chair of the People’s Assembly and banged his gavel on national television, while outside, nothing was changed.

Even so, the evaporation of support for the Brothers – assuming the latest poll numbers are even close to accurate – is remarkable. Reports of a recent survey by the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Center suggest that some 45 percent of those who backed the Brothers in parliament won’t vote for it in the next elections. Al-Shater was the first choice of only 5 percent of voters.

During and after the elections, I heard from a number of voters that they cast their ballot for the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party as an “experiment” (a phrase I heard so often, I’m guessing that the Brothers themselves may have pushed this line in their campaigning). So far, that experiment has yielded little but entertaining television. This isn’t the Brothers’ fault, necessarily – it’s only been three months, the military has not allowed them to appoint their own ministers, and due to the very loose guidelines of the transitional period they have no legal recourse – but public impressions are often formed very quickly and subjectively, and the Brothers end up looking like the all-talk no-action parliament of Mubarak’s day.The Brothers also are probably better able to field strong candidates for the legislature than for the presidency. They had a lot of locally known and respected grassroots activists, but no one with charisma and national stature. The most frequently heard complaint I’ve heard from Egyptian voters about the candidates is, “I don’t know any of these guys” – except for Amr Moussa and Omar Suleiman, who according to the Ahram numbers dwarf all the competition. The Brothers under Mubarak never really had the chance to groom a telegenic frontman for a future president, but even if they had, he might not have been what voters wanted. Suleiman’s surge of support suggests that much of the electorate is looking for a protective patriarch who projects power and control as their president, and won’t risk the job going to an amateur. For the legislature, they look more kindly on populists who they imagine can serve as the conscience of the nation, like the Brothers or the Salafis.

A final factor affecting the Brothers’s political trajectory is that their whole institutional culture is structured around their relationship with the Mubarak regime. Most of the time they were given a pretty big space to work in, so long as they were well-behaved, but they suffered occasional bouts of persecution and jail sentences to keep them in line. This inculcated a set of survival instincts that aren’t necessarily compatible with successful competitive politics.

The Brothers are frequently characterized as a “big tent” movement – with 80 years’ worth of name recognition they attracted a wide variety of pious dissidents who all accept the label “Islamist” but who disagree on pretty much everything else: conservative versus liberal interpretations of Sharia, independence versus group loyalty and discipline, laissez-faire versus statism, confronting the regime versus rolling with the punches. But they also needed to impose a fairly ruthless level of discipline to keep members on message and avoided antagonizing Mubarak to a greater degree than the leadership thought was safe.

For the Brotherhood's leadership, trying to manage their membership's expectations in an open political system has been a major challenge. It accounts for many of their dramatic shifts in policy. After Mubarak fell, the first instinct of the Brothers’ leadership’s was to cooperate with SCAF. But they lost some of their youth activists when they tried to avoid threatening the ruling generals by staying out of street protests. They lost another set when they expelled Abd al-Moneim Aboul Futuh for running for president independently. On their right, their bid for mainstream respectability left a vacuum, which the Salafis hastily filled. In order not to be overly threatening, the Brothers declared they would not nominate anyone for president – but then went back on that pledge, presumably because they did not like seeing their members inspired by Aboul Futuh and Abu Ismail candidacies. This abrupt and dramatic reversal of a high-profile pledge has done much to erode the perception that the Brothers in any way represent a higher, more principled form of politics.

This is not to say that the Brothers are doomed to fizzle. Some Islamists have proved to have staying power, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who Egypt’s Brothers cite as a model. But Erdogan has delivered, not just vague promises or ideological purity but hard economic growth. The Brothers can’t simply ride an “Islamic wave” into a position of dominance. There is a pool of support to be gained by claiming the mantle of religiosity – but it’s a pool that is a mile wide and an inch deep. A 50 percent share of the legislature is a strong hand to have been dealt, but it can still be overplayed – especially if, as poll numbers suggest, they will be up against an army-backed establishment president like Amr Moussa, and especially in a transitional period where a deus ex machine court decision or a coup can see parliament dissolved in a heartbeat. If the Brothers are thinking long-term, I see them trying to establish themselves as an institutionalized center-right: socially conservative without positing real radical change, offering competence rather than piety and purity.

Another option is to make common cause with the Salafis, and try to use the two groups’ parliamentary supermajority – 75 percent – to draft a constitution giving the parliament ascendancy over the president. But the Brothers have fallen out with the army, the constitution drafting process is in limbo, and the Salafis are a disorganized fractious bunch. The poll numbers suggest their vote base is almost as fickle as the Brothers’. Even with Salafi back-up, going into a confrontation with an army-backed president is a path fraught with risk – and the Brothers have a long tradition of being risk-averse.

Ultimately, the role in which the Brothers are most likely to find themselves in the next few years is of a parliamentary majority clamoring against an military-backed president, the voice of the majority with moral authority but no real authority, criticizing policy without being held accountable for policies of their own. This is the same role they have played for much of the last two decades and, if given a chance, I suspect they will settle into it comfortably.