The Middle East Channel

How Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood will win

The performance of the Islamist party Ennahda in the October 23 Tunisian elections, in which it won 41.5 percent of the seats, has refocused attention on the upcoming Egyptian elections scheduled to begin on November 28. Some analysts have minimized the Muslim Brotherhood's prospects for success by pointing to polls suggesting that the group -- the largest and best organized in Egypt -- hovers between 15 to 30 percent approval. It may be true that the Brotherhood isn't as popular as we might think. But elections aren't popularity contests. In fact, as the campaign unfolds, it appears likely that Egypt's Islamists will do even better than expected, just like their Tunisian counterparts.

In the run-up to the Tunisian elections, Ennahda was polling around 20 percent. Yet they ended up with nearly double. In elections -- particularly founding elections in which new parties need to introduce themselves to voters across the country -- organization and strategy are what counts, not high approval ratings. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood excels on both counts. While most liberal and leftist parties are effectively starting from scratch, the Brotherhood already has a disciplined ground game, fine-tuned from three decades of contesting syndicate and national elections. 

During last November's parliamentary contest -- arguably the most fraudulent Egypt had ever seen -- I had the chance to witness the Brotherhood's "get-out-the-vote" operation up close. One Brotherhood campaign worker, perhaps unaware it would sound somewhat implausible, told me that the organization has an internal vote turnout of nearly 100 percent. In other words, everyone who is an active Muslim Brotherhood member is expected to vote and actually does. Even if this is a stretch, it is true that the Brotherhood, in part because it is a religious movement rather than a political party, has the sort of organizational discipline of which competing parties can only dream.

This discipline is deeply rooted in the organization's culture. Each Muslim Brotherhood member signs on to a rigorous educational curriculum and is part of something called an usra, or family, which meets weekly. If a Brother chooses to stay home on election day, other Brothers will know. But it's not just a matter of peer expectations. At each polling station, there is a Brotherhood coordinator who essentially does a whip count. Because the number of voters at a particular polling station can be quite small -- with the number of Brothers in the hundreds -- this is feasible in many districts. The "whip" stays there the entire day, watching who comes and goes and tallies up the figures. If you were supposed to go and didn't, the whip will know. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, one such whip assured me, "Well, you have to understand -- I know every single Brother who lives in the area.

With an electoral system that is, in the words of one activist, "algorithmically complicated," knowing your district takes on even more importance. As Daphne McCurdy pointed out in a recent POMED report on Tunisia, "Most polling in Tunisia has focused on nationwide levels of support, entirely overlooking variation within specific electoral districts." Ennahda was the only party that had coverage throughout the country, with tailored strategies for each district, including rural areas. Here, the Brotherhood has yet another built-in advantage. With 88 deputies in the previous parliament (2005-2010), the group was able to provide a greater array of services on the local level and build stronger relations with constituents.

What about the Brotherhood's competition? The Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is joined by Ayman Nour's liberal al-Ghad party, the Nasserist Karama party, and a smattering of smaller parties, forming the "Democratic Alliance" list. There are four other major lists, three of which have a liberal or leftist orientation (Egyptian Bloc, the Revolution Continues, and the Wafd list). With their considerable funding and patronage networks, the right-of-center Wafd party, headed by multi-millionaire Al-Sayyid Badawy, and remnants of the old ruling National Democratic Party, are also well positioned to secure a significant share of the vote. 

For their part, the newly formed liberal parties have suffered from an inability to articulate a clear ideology or agenda -- a major failing in a country where "liberalism" continues to have a negative connotation. Many liberal parties have sometimes appeared to stand for little more than not being Islamist, opting to stoke public fears of impending theocracy. Such a strategy is likely to backfire in a country where 67 percent of Egyptians say that laws should strictly follow the Quran's teachings, while another 27 percent say that they should in some way follow the values and principles of Islam, according to an April Pew poll. In Tunisia, the Progressive Democratic Party, which positioned itself as the anti-Islamist choice, got pummeled in the polls, while the two liberal parties that maintained good relations with Ennahda -- Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol -- faired relatively well, finishing in second and third place respectively.

This leaves an obvious course for leftist and liberal parties, one that offers considerably more promise -- a razor-sharp focus on Egypt's mounting economic troubles. But this, too, is challenging, as most parties -- leftist or not -- use similar rhetoric on the economy: Poverty is bad; jobs are good; social justice is better, and so on. As Ayesha Sabayala of the Economist Intelligence Unit pointed out regarding Tunisia, "If you look at parties' manifestos, with the exception of the far left parties, most have the same economic objectives: to reduce unemployment and increase infrastructure in interior." The Muslim Brotherhood has smartly positioned itself as a voice for the poor, even though its economic platform (something designed more for foreign investors and the international community) is surprisingly free market-oriented. Recently, for example, the group launched "Millioniyyat al-Khayr" (the million-man act of goodwill), an initiative to provide 1.5 million kilos of meat to 5 million Egyptians for the Eid al-Adha holiday.

There is still the possibility that the Brotherhood may underperform -- as they did in the recent Doctors' Syndicate elections. But, be careful what you wish for. The alternative to moderate Islamists may very well be less moderate Islamists. Well before the Arab Spring, Brotherhood leaders often told me that their youth were increasingly being swayed by Salafi ideas. One Brotherhood official told me that Salafis outnumbered them five to one. Salafi groups have repeatedly sounded ambitious notes, with one leader claiming that they would win 30 percent of the seats. Ambitious as they are, Salafis are political novices, with virtually no experience running parliamentary campaigns. But they are proving quick learners and have managed to unify their ranks, bringing together four Salafi parties under the banner of the "Islamic alliance." Moreover, liberal claims (or hopes) that Salafis are well outside of the mainstream may be wishful thinking. In a December 2010 poll, 82 percent of Egyptians said they favored stoning adulterers, while 77 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves. The only movement besides the Brotherhood with a nationwide grassroots base, Salafis have taken to organizing traffic in congested areas of Alexandria, engage in door-to-door education campaigns, and provide health services to the poor.

These elections, then, are not necessarily about ideas. They are about voters. And, in this respect, Egypt's elections are looking a lot like they do in the United States. The "good guys," whoever they are, don't always win. Indeed, if Islamist parties do as well they might -- winning upwards of 50 percent of the vote -- the alarmism and hand wringing from Western quarters will be considerable. The important metric for Egypt's troubled transition, though, isn't who wins, but rather, if Egyptians have the opportunity to choose their own representatives free of intimidation and interference. Democracy, as Western democracies have long known, is about the right to make the wrong choice.

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. 

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

How Iran really sees Turkey

Tehran initially viewed the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey with much enthusiasm. It has turned into a nightmare. Turkey's shift against the Assad regime in Syria, and its manifest ideological appeal in a changing Middle East, now has Iranian leaders viewing Ankara as a key part of a U.S. scheme with the Arab States in the Persian Gulf aimed directly at them.

The ascendance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP initially thrilled Tehran, which hoped that as Turkey moved toward Islamic government it would be ideologically closer to Iran. Conservative Iranian commentators argued that the AKP's goal was an Islamic republic, even if it were to be achieved through elections rather than a revolution. Iran looked at Turkey's special relationship with the West and East not as a threat, but as an instrument to reduce Tehran's isolation and protect its interests. During several meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gull from 2006 to 2010, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated Turkey's political and economic achievements and emphasized that the AKP's move toward the Islamic world would "strengthen" Muslim countries, while further domestically and regionally popularizing the AKP. Also, Iran was eager to use Turkey's new stance to its advantage. Iran welcomed Turkey's mediation, along with Brazil's, on the nuclear issue in 2010, even if that gambit ultimately failed.

But then the landscape began to shift. Much to the surprise of the Iranians, Turkey became a regional competitor, and its model of moderate Islamic politics proved more popular than Iran's hard-line approach. Turkey turned not to be a proxy for Iranian or U.S. interests, ultimately pursuing a foreign policy all its own, without compunction for the sensitivities of the Iranian leadership.

In May of 2010, the Gaza Flotilla incident erupted after the Israeli military intercepted the Turkish supported "Gaza Freedom Flotilla." In their condemnations of the Israeli attacks on the humanitarian ships bound for Gaza, Iranian leaders expressed support for Palestinians, but they were nearly silent on the leading role of Turkey in the confrontation. Instead, Iranian media and officials expressed concerns that Iran's role in the incident was not prominent. Anxious to reassert an Iranian presence in the Palestinian issue, some government organizations announced that Iran would soon send its own humanitarian ships to Gaza. Iran's Red Crescent Society even set the date of the departure, but the ships were never launched, as the country was not seeking a direct confrontation with Israel. A commentator came up with a telling suggestion: Iran should grant citizenship to the supporters of the Palestinians who die during such humanitarian incidents and help their families. It was one way of inserting Iran into the narrative. It did not happen.

Then came the Arab Spring, which according to Iran, is a misnomer: not Arab, but rather Islamic; not a spring, but like the Islamic Revolution in Iran, permanent. For Iran's Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Arab Spring is in fact an "Islamic awakening," the flowering of seeds that were sown three decades earlier by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. According to Khamanei, the uprisings signal the time for Iran to enter the scene as Muslims rise up to kick out one Western puppet after another.

But it was Turkey, not Iran, which seized the moment. Tehran watched in horror as Erdogan was received rapturously during his post-revolution trips to Arab countries. His advocacy of the "secular" model of government, which respected Islam set off alarm bells not just in Iran's political capital, Tehran, but also in the religious city of Qom. Both the political and religious establishments in Iran protested. Even "moderate" ayatollahs attacked Turkey's "liberal" and "Western" interpretations of Islam and warned that Iran had fallen behind Turkey in the region. Their voices were initially louder than the voices of Tehran's government officials.  

What sent Iran over the edge was Turkey's shift on Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan went from being a good friend of President Bashar al-Assad, to telling him to either reform or he would soon be ousted. Turkey has hosted conferences for the Syrian opposition and is now reportedly sheltering anti-regime fighters. In response, Tehran sent several messages to Ankara, making it clear that Syria is its "redline," and warned Erdogan not to cross it by backing the anti-Assad opposition. Turkey did not heed Iran's warning. Instead it announced that it would install NATO's radar system, which is said to be a shield again Iran's ballistic missiles, in Turkish territory. Iran's tone then became more aggressive and even threatening. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other political and military officials warned that Iran would be forced to respond accordingly since the NATO radar system is to protect its enemies.

Conservative columnists then opened fire. They criticized Turkey for being a Sunni dictatorship that did not represent the other "50 percent of Turkey's population," meaning the Alevis and the Kurds. However, they failed to mention that Iran and Turkey are closely cooperating over the challenges posed by their Kurdish minorities. These commentators, who usually voice trends within Iran's establishment, implicitly warned that Turkey should be aware that it could easily become unstable. Conservative media close to the office of the Supreme Leader argued that Shiite Alevis, who consists of "27 percent" of the population crave for Ankara to move closer to Tehran and Damascus, while Turkey's Kurds are angry at the "brutality" of the Turkish army. Pointing to Turkey's fault lines, they added that its people yearn for the implementation of Islamic law, but that the AKP has only provided them with a "veneer of Islamism." Moreover, Turkey, unlike Iran and Egypt, lacks a long tradition of jurisprudential scholarship and therefore it does not have nearly the intellectual strength to lead the Islamic world. Last but not least, the Arabs cannot forget the "bitter" memories of the Ottoman period. Thus, Ankara's euphoric moment cannot last since the new Egypt will once again reassert itself and balance Turkey.

The new Iranian narrative now fingers Turkey as part of a bigger U.S.-Israel-Saudi plot to derail the new wave of Islamic awakening. Since the United States is losing its puppets (Mubarak, Ben Ali, etc.) in the region, it has decided to use the Turkish model as a damage control measure. The AKP is also a new tool the United States would like to use for its regime change policy in Iran after the failure of the Green Movement in 2009, the argument continues. This is a sensitive point to make, however. The Iranian government is aware of the ideological affinity between Iran's reformist opposition and the AKP. Although they were born in diametrically opposed political systems, both strive to strike a balance between Islam and democracy. Iranian leaders fear that the AKP may inflict a similar damage to their legitimacy as the Iranian reform movement has. They acknowledge that the reformists, although defeated for now, managed to crack the heart of the establishment and bring many die-hard supporters of the regime to their side or neutralize them. Now, the AKP could create a similar legitimacy crisis for the Islamic government on a regional level, weakening Iran's soft power and undermining its popularity in the Muslim world.

There was a time when Iran would rely on its revolutionary ideology to project power. The Islamic government now finds itself relying on using its power to project ideology, to prove its revolution was right, and to demonstrate its message was just. In a recent speech, Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the world is entering a "historic turn," in which the Islamic Republic should be the model for all countries on earth. But that could become a cruel prophecy indeed if the model they were looking for turns out to be Turkish.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar teaches Iranian politics at George Washington University. He is a scholar at the Middle East Institute.