Published February 10, 2011
With President Hosni Mubarak vowing to stay in power through the transition of government, the central question facing the Obama administration, and indeed the world, is what will happen when Mubarak does indeed leave and Egypt transitions to Democratic elections and a new government.
President Obama dramatically understated the level of support the Muslim Brotherhood has garnered in Egypt in his Super Bowl interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, and is most likely wrong to have asserted that the Brothers and their allies do not command majority support in the country.
While the Brotherhood now says that they don't plan to contest the presidential elections directly, that can always change. And the data suggests strongly that any candidate they back directly or indirectly would have a potentially decisive advantage. Moreover, there is every reason to believe they would win a decisive, if not dominant role, in Parliament and would be the key actors in selecting the next prime minister as well as setting the legislative agenda.
While very recent public opinion polling from Egypt is not currently available, a number of clear inferences about what is likely to happen can be drawn from prior surveys and prior election results.
The bottom line: there is at least a 50 percent chance, if not more, that a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood or a party with a generally similar approach and orientation will win the next presidential election.
I draw this conclusion from a number of factors. First, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that support for the current regime is very limited to nonexistent. But the underlying structural issues present a more daunting challenge. Even before the fall of the Mubarak government, the Egyptian public was strongly aligned with fundamentalists and traditionalists, rather than modernizers who support a secular, pro-western tradition.
Put simply, Egyptians support Islam, its expanded role in the country's civic life, as well as Shariah.
A broad based analysis of Egyptian public opinion by Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzerhow bears this conclusion out. They concluded that 60 percent of Egyptians have fundamentalist views, while just 20 percent are secular in their orientation.
Egyptians also support a more expansive role for Islam in Egyptian life. In Pew polling conducted last year, almost half (48 percent) say that Islam plays a large role in politics in Egypt, and an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – say Islam’s influence in politics is positive. Only 2 percent say its influence is negative. Not surprisingly, almost two-thirds of Egyptians told Zogby that Egyptian life would improve when clerics play a more central role in the political life of the country.
Egyptians also support the central elements of Shariah Law. For example, 84 percent say that apostates, or those who forsake Islam, should face the death penalty and 77 percent say thieves should have their hands cut off. A majority (54 percent) says men and women should be segregated in the workplace.
Further, the Egyptian people clearly support a political agenda that can only be described as radical. More than 7 in 10 said they were positive toward Iran getting nuclear weapons in a July 2010 Zogby Poll and close to 80 percent favor abrogating the Camp David accords with Israel.
A significant number of Egyptians are favorable to terrorist organizations, with close to half favorable to Hamas and one in five favorable to Al Qaeda.
Given this data it is no shock that the only group in Egyptian society that has any broad based support is the Muslim Brotherhood. Their leader, Muhammed Badi, has not surprisingly said the Koran should be law in Egypt and that jihad was essential. He also said that Israel and Zionism have to be resisted in every way possible with every resource at the disposal of the Egyptian people.
According to the most recent data available, the Egyptian people are strongly favorable towards the Muslim Brotherhood. A study conducted in 2009 by WorldPublicOpinion.org shows that 64 percent have positive views of the Muslim Brotherhood, while just 16 percent have negative views. Nineteen percent said they have mixed views. An even larger majority, 69 percent, believes that the Muslim Brotherhood favors democracy. Just 22 percent believe they are too extreme and not genuinely democratic.
There has never been any real support for Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party or any other secular party for that matter. Voter registration in Egypt has been relatively low with only about 25 percent to 30 percent typically registering. And of that relatively small group of registrants, no more than one-third typically voted in the rigged elections that have been held for president and parliament over the past five years. That means that even in elections that were not even close to free and fair, the current regime probably won the support of less than 10 percent of Egyptians who bothered to register and vote for the governing party in elections elections.
Indeed, the only party to defy expectations was the Brotherhood, which managed to win 20 percent of the seats contested in the 2005 Parliamentary elections. That was the last time they had any sort of legitimate chance to compete for votes. And even then their candidates had to run as Independents to avoid running afoul of the government.
Neutral observers believe that in a fair election, the Muslim Brotherhood would have won a much higher percentage of seats both in 2005 and 2010 when they were effectively barred from contesting the Parliamentary election.
Secular parties have always done less well in Egypt, and the available evidence has consistently shown that there is little if any support for conventional, secular, democratic parties. And given the widespread disaffection with the current government and its performance, it is unlikely a candidate like current Vice President Omar Sulemain (who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt) and Prime Minister Safik could muster more than 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote. Nor is there any reason to believe that a candidate who runs and positions himself as a pro-western reformer, like former Foreign Minister and current Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, or a candidate with any ties or links to the military like Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, would do appreciably better.
What does this mean for the United States? Almost certainly the next Egyptian government will be hostile to the United States and will pursue policies that are inimical to our interests. In the Zogby poll, 85 percent called themselves unfavorable to the United States and 92 percent described America as one of the two greatest threats to Egyptian interests in the world. The Pew polling bears this point out.
The Pew poll similarly found that the Egyptian people were unfavorable to the U.S. by an 82 percent to 17 percent margin. A survey conducted by Gallup last year shows that just 19 percent approve of the job the United States has played providing leadership around the globe, while about half disapprove. And according to the WorldPublicOpinion survey, two-thirds of Egyptians say the U.S. plays a negative role in the world, and eight in ten say the U.S. is seeking to impose American culture on Muslim countries.
And if anything, these attitudes are likely to grow more radical and more hostile over the next few months. Probably one of the most important, and poorly understood reasons for the development of radical ideas and fundamentalist beliefs has been the penetration of satellite dishes and the growing influence of Al Jazeera.
More than three-quarters of Egyptians now have satellite dishes. Young people use them to get their news principally from Al Jazeera, whose interest in and deference to Islamic fundamentalist and extremist views cannot be underestimated.
Given the short period of time between now and the scheduled September election, it is frankly unlikely that any group will be able to organize an alternative force to the Brotherhood and its philosophical allies. The prospective candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei has generated little broad-based support in the country, and the explicit rejection of his candidacy by the Muslim Brotherhood could be its death knell.
Moreover, the Brotherhood in their past campaign has been sophisticated and inclusive, and has hidden their overt Islamic tendency. They have campaigned on the mantle of reform, change, and revitalization of Egypt as a means of winning as broad based support as they possible could. In essence, they have campaigned in the same way that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has in his campaigns for both Mayor of Istanbul and for Prime Minister. He went on to demonstrate a much more explicitly religious agenda once he reached that nation’s highest office.
Make no mistake, the Obama administration needs to face up to the reality of what is most likely coming in Egypt and recognize the direct threat to U.S. interests and stability in the Middle East, that a fundamentalist victory will mean for Egypt.
Douglas E. Schoen has advised four former Israeli Prime Ministers over the last 30 years, including Prime Minister Menachem, beginning in the aftermath of the signing of the Camp David Accords. He also advised Prime Minister Tancu Ciller of Turkey between 1994-1996.