Why an Undemocratic Party Is Going to Win Egypt's First Democratic Election

By Eric Trager

Cairo - As expected, many things went wrong on the first day of Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. Ballots arrived late at approximately 900 polling stations and, in a few cases, angry voters held judicial monitors hostage after their ballots failed to arrive. Meanwhile, candidates nationwide scrambled to correct their campaign literature when they found that their numerical ballot placements did not match the numberings that had been announced prior to the election. "His ballot number was supposed to be 127, but in the polling place it's 126!" the nephew of one candidate told me. "Please report this." (Done.) And in many places, lines were incredibly long-including a seven-hour wait for women voters in the relatively wealthy, northern Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis.

But despite the day's various frustrations and confusions, one thing seemed quite clear at every polling place that I visited: The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is poised for victory.

From the moment I exited the Metro station in Heliopolis, a Freedom and Justice kiosk greeted me. Beneath an awning and surrounded by Freedom and Justice banners, young Brotherhood activists directed voters to the proper local polling stations, the addresses of which they wrote on specially designed, Freedom-and-Justice-emblazoned palm cards. The scene was bustling, as Brotherhood members welcomed voters to the table, took calls, and handed out additional literature. "We expect to win," says Mohamed Fouad, 26, one of the kiosk organizers. "But we don't know what percentage we'll get." So to boost their turnout and their prospects for victory, the Brotherhood has orchestrated a massive get-out-the-vote effort, dispatching-according to the organization-40,000 volunteers in Cairo alone to "safeguard the elections." It also doesn't hurt that the Brotherhood's Guidance Office, which is the organization's supreme body, has commanded its members to vote for Freedom and Justice candidates, thereby ensuring a massive pro-Brotherhood turnout.

Receive email alerts

Indeed, everywhere I went, the Brotherhood operation was in full swing. In the working class neighborhood of Sayida Zeinab, Freedom and Justice volunteers manned four laptops right in front of the polling station, while other Brotherhood members monitored the long line of voters. On the Nile island of Manial, Freedom and Justice youths managed two computers and handed out campaign literature, while additional female volunteers were on hand to assist religious women voters who might feel uncomfortable dealing with men. "I'm here to help my party," Jehan Darwish, one of the female volunteers told me. But this conflicted with the Brotherhood's official line, and the kiosk's manager quickly intervened. "It's a community service for voters to tell them where to vote," interjected Mohamed Mansour. "It's a free service for those who vote for us and those who don't."

To be sure, the Brotherhood wasn't the only group that had organized effectively for the elections. In Heliopolis, a few independent candidates had also set up stations, and in many areas the ubiquity of Freedom and Justice banners was matched by that of the Salafist Nour party, which is reportedly making an especially strong showing in lower income neighborhoods. But what makes the Brotherhood's showing so remarkable is how consistent it is: they are, simply put, everywhere. And given that they are pushing an Islamist message that holds visceral appeal for the religious Muslim public of Egypt, they may have devised a formula for victory.

This is not to say, however, that the Brotherhood faces no challenges in securing a parliamentary plurality. A number of Brotherhood activists said that they viewed members of the former ruling party, who are now running as independents, as serious threats. "We still think that the old regime, which controlled the country for a long time, still has some power," said Ahmed Shams el-Din, a Brotherhood neurologist who was volunteering at the Heliopolis kiosk. "The old MPs still have the money to influence the choices of the people." Brotherhood activists also acknowledged that Salafist parties could cut into their Islamist vote-share. "People fear that those with Islamic ideology are competing with one another," Shams el-Din told me. "We're concerned that people will look badly on it."

1 | 2 | Next Page››

Eric Trager is the Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This article originally appeared in The New Republic.

Sponsored Links
Related Articles
May 15, 2012
What Do Egyptians Want? - Barry Rubin
Eric Trager
Author Archive