Counting Islam

A look at the ups and downs of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. By Tarek Masoud. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014. 252 pp.

How did Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood do so well in elections under the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak regime, and again in 2011 and 2012 after the January 25 uprising? Why did the Brotherhood then fall from power so quickly? Why has the secular opposition performed ineptly, and, in particular, why can’t the pro-welfare Egyptian Left win elections in a poor country? Tarek Masoud provides valuable insights into such crucial questions in Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. His rigorous study should change how readers think about Egyptian politics.

Using extensive quantitative research (economic, voting, and polling data), Masoud challenges the widespread view that the Brotherhood’s famed organizational skills, its charitable work, or the appeal of its Islamist ideas are sufficient to explain its electoral success. He contends that for Egyptian voters, elections are mostly about economic interests—especially contests for parliament, whose main role in Egypt is to provide services, not to shape policy. In addition, decades of underdevelopment have structured Egyptian society to the advantage of pro-regime and Islamist candidates. Masoud analyzes various data to show that in authoritarian, poor, largely non-industrialized Egypt, state-controlled social and economic organizations, family networks, and Islamic institutions dominate the civic landscape; and pro-regime and Islamist candidates use them to lobby voters with economic promises. Meanwhile, secular opposition parties lack similarly dense networks of mobilization. For example, only 12 percent of workers belong to unions, and there are few other class- or occupation-based groups.

Masoud provides a close analysis of how the Brotherhood won numerous seats as a repressed opposition group during the Mubarak regime. He shows that the Brotherhood could not, as is often thought, use mosques as significant mobilization sites because of heavy regime policing. He also questions whether the Brotherhood’s charity network was as powerful as a vote-getting machine as is often assumed. As Masoud points out, there is actually little detailed evidence to show that the Brotherhood’s social services were anything more than modest. His own research suggests that those who received Islamic charity did not necessarily vote for the group. Instead, in the low-turnout elections of the Mubarak era, the Brotherhood won by mobilizing a very small number of middle-class constituents, its historic base. These voters didn’t need to trade their ballots for regime patronage as poor voters did, and thus could “afford” to cast protest votes for the Brotherhood.

Masoud does not fully explain, however, why these voters chose Brotherhood candidates. How did the Brotherhood convince voters of its competence and persuade them to risk violent harassment by Mubarak’s thugs when they went to vote? Masoud perhaps underplays the influence of the group’s social capital and political-religious authority among its followers—after all, the Brotherhood is first a significant social movement, only second a political party.

Concerning elections in the immediate post-Mubarak period, Masoud writes, “One would think that with democratization non-Islamists could improve, and the Islamists’ advantage would disappear, but this was not the case.” He argues that the Brotherhood secured a plurality in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections primarily because of economic factors, not a demand for sharia. According to 2011 polling data, the economy was the most important issue for the majority of voters. Moreover, polls showed that the Egyptian public had a clear leftist economic orientation, with distaste for neoliberal policies and a strong preference for welfare-statist and redistributive policies.

Why couldn’t leftist parties take advantage of the far more open political environment to tap into this constituency? They could not overcome two Brotherhood advantages, Masoud says. First, with the democratic opening, the Brotherhood suddenly had access to numerous religious institutions that had previously been hard to penetrate. Second, drawing on its reputation for competence and electoral success, the Brotherhood convinced enough voters that it shared their left-leaning economic preferences—even though the group’s platform actually espoused pro-capitalist policies. Masoud explains that many Egyptians “appeared to [vote for the Brotherhood] because they believed [it] would pursue the policies of wealth redistribution and strengthening of the social safety net that the Mubarak regime appeared to have long abandoned.” Masoud acknowledges that decades of repression and cooptation have contributed to the Left’s “political languor.” But he attributes its electoral failure more to factors associated with Egypt’s socio-economic structure—mainly the absence of a robust network of labor-oriented organizations through which to mobilize poor and working-class voters.

The May 2012 presidential election, narrowly won by the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, featured a different dynamic, Masoud explains. By this time, the Brotherhood’s weak performance running the parliament had punctured its claims of competence and cost it much public support. Though economic issues were still important, the presidential vote was more about personalities, and the mass media, over which the old regime still held sway, played a larger role in reaching voters. The old regime patronage networks, mostly dormant in the 2011 parliamentary elections, were revitalized by spring 2012 and sprang into action to support the candidacy of one of their own, Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, a former general who once headed the Air Force. Morsi tapped into religious networks and a strong anti-Shafik sentiment among enough secular voters to eke out a second-round victory by 3 percent. Still, in the first round, four million fewer voters cast ballots for the Brotherhood than in the parliamentary elections just six months earlier.

This leads to Masoud’s incisive rendering of Morsi’s July 3, 2013, ouster by the military. By late June, popular anger over the Brotherhood’s economic mismanagement, controversial social agenda, and authoritarian predilections had mushroomed into mass protests demanding that Morsi resign. These protests were backed by Mubarak-era business leaders and the police, military, and other state institutions. A severe political crisis ensued and violence flared when he refused to step down. The Brotherhood, refusing on principle to sacrifice the hard-fought presidency and also fearful of losing a snap presidential vote, pushed for new parliamentary elections, which were already due after the Supreme Constitutional Court had invalidated the 2011 parliament, and which they believed they could win owing to their structural advantages. The opposition, rather than trying to ride the huge wave of anti-Brotherhood anger to take control of parliament and marginalize Morsi that way, instead demanded an early presidential election, which they believed they could win. To break the civilian political gridlock, the military stepped in, removed Morsi, and pledged swift elections. But it then sidelined the opposition, consolidated power, and effectively ended the democratic experiment. The opposition’s aversion to parliamentary competition against Islamists, built up over years of defeat in elections, was only one of many factors in the complicated situation leading to the military’s takeover, but Masoud reminds us that its mistrust of democratic processes helped clear the army’s path.

Masoud’s overall conclusions are compelling. If the Brotherhood is ever allowed to reenter the political game after the current brutal crackdown, he argues that its social base, structural electoral advantages, and years of election experience may position it to do well in elections once again. Meanwhile, the Left faces a long political road ahead unless economic changes alter the socio-economic landscape to its advantage. As Masoud writes, the fall of Islamists in Egypt is unlikely to lead to the rise of the Left anytime soon.

Amy Hawthorne is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She served in the U.S. Department of State as an advisor on Egypt policy in 2011 and 2012. From 2006 to 2010, she was executive director of the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. She was the founding editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin (now Sada) while serving as an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2002 to 2004. On Twitter: @awhawth.