Skip to main content

Can Muslim Brotherhood unite Egypt?

By Mohammed Ayoob, Special to CNN
updated 10:51 AM EDT, Sat June 2, 2012
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi holds a news conference in Cairo on Tuesday.
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi holds a news conference in Cairo on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mohammed Ayoob: Muslim Brotherhood lost half its support between the two elections
  • The Brotherhood can't govern by itself with support of only 22% of electorate, he writes
  • Ayoob: Mubarak-linked candidate did well, but social justice proponent did well, too
  • Liberals, Nasserists and Brotherhood must form their own coalition, Ayoob writes

Editor's note: Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

(CNN) -- On the surface, the first round of the Egyptian presidential election seemed to show that the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the Mubarak regime are locked in mortal combat for the political soul of Egypt -- as Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi faces pro-military candidate Ahmed Shafik in a second round of voting in June.

Buying into this simplistic formula, however, would be a total misreading of the far more complex picture. To understand the political reality of Egypt and the strengths and weaknesses of the major political forces operating in the country, one needs to look more closely at all of the electoral results.

First, it is very clear that the Muslim Brotherhood, despite Morsi's emergence as the presidential front-runner, lost almost half its support base between the parliamentary and presidential elections -- from 47% to 25%.

It is true that the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood was able to mobilize its political base in the presidential elections more effectively than its competitors. But the support of a mere quarter of the electorate is nowhere near sufficient for the Brotherhood to govern the country by itself.

Mohammed Ayoob
Mohammed Ayoob

Only part of this decline in support can be attributed to former Brotherhood leader Abdelmonen Abol Fotoh's 2011 defection from the party and his decision to run for president as an independent. The decline also reflects a disenchantment with the Brotherhood's poor legislative performance, its attempt to pack the constituent assembly with its supporters, reneging on its promise not to run a presidential candidate and its tendency to compromise with the military on important issues.

The election results also demonstrate that the total Islamist vote is somewhere around 40% of the electorate. That might be overstating its strength. Islamist Abul Fotoh garnered many votes from secular liberals who mistakenly considered him to be the anti-establishment front-runner. Many voted for him to prevent Mubarak-era candidates Amr Mousa and Shafik from winning.

Egyptians angry over runoff candidates
Disillusion in Egypt vote

The real surprise of the election was the emergence of Hamdeen Sabahy -- whose campaign was built on nationalism and demands for social justice -- with 22% of the vote.

Sabahy was often referred to as the Nasserist candidate who represented the legacy of the Gamal Abdul Nasser, the leader of the 1952 revolution and Egypt's first president. His campaign did not get going until very late in the day; otherwise it is more than likely that the runoff would have pitted him against Morsi. That would have given Sabahy a real shot at winning the runoff, given the anti-Islamist search for a viable candidate untainted by the Mubarak regime.

Sabahy's performance in the first round indicates that many who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections, especially the working classes, were disillusioned with its advocacy of a free market economy and lack of attention to social justice and welfare issues.

Sabahy's message of social justice worked, as demonstrated by his lead in Cairo's working-class district Imbaba, long considered a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. Sabahy carried the two most populous cities, Cairo and Alexandria, without much organizational support -- a remarkable performance by any standards.

The fact that pro-military Shafik, the leading remnant of the Mubarak regime, took almost a quarter of the votes seems remarkable. But the superior financial capability and patron-client network of the former ruling party NDP, especially in the Nile Delta, and covert support from the military brass played a big role.

Reports are emerging that the security services and military-linked pro-Mubarak landlords coerced many of the Delta peasantry to vote for Shafik. It appears that pressure was also put on public servants and their families.

Shafiq's law-and-order message also attributed to his success. The security situation in much of the country has deteriorated markedly -- some argue deliberately engineered by the military. But his performance can also be read as the last gasp of the old regime, which can be well and truly buried if its opponents, from the Brotherhood to the Nasserists and liberals, can form a coalition capable of providing effective and legitimate government.

This should not be an impossible task.

It is clear that the Islamist forces are fractured and the Brotherhood's base is shrinking, as the political playing field becomes increasingly level in a democratizing Egypt. There are indications that the Brotherhood is aware of its limitations, which has forced it to mellow considerably, sacrificing some of its ideological purity at the altar of political pragmatism.

If the leaders of the various trends of political opposition to the Mubarak regime demonstrate adequate wisdom and put together a governing coalition that includes no remnants of the old regime, Egypt's democratic experiment could be securely launched on the road to maturity.

It is most important that the Brotherhood and Sabahy's campaign come to an understanding that would allow them to share power, possibly with Morsi as president and Sabahy as vice president of a democratic Egypt. The Brotherhood must also give the Nasserists and liberals a voice in writing a new constitution that would guarantee the fundamental rights of citizens and delineate a process for orderly political transition, based on periodic elections for the executive and the legislative branches of government.

A consensus will also have to be built on the role of Islam in the new political order. The Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated remarkable flexibility in the past on this issue. It may be even more flexible now that it realizes a consensus on Islam that is acceptable to the majority of political parties and factions would be essential to creating a coalition.

It would be safe to say that on this issue, the ball is squarely in the Muslim Brotherhood's court. Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mohammed Ayoob.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT