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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT