Is the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's conservative religious political party, poised to sweep the country's first-ever free elections and establish an Islamist caliphate in the Arab world's most populous country? It's not just Fox News warning us that the group is set to take over Egypt -- columnists and journalists from across the English-speaking world seem to take the Muslim Brotherhood's coming dominance as inevitable.
But does the Muslim Brotherhood actually have that kind of popular support? For most of Egypt's 50-year modern history, we've never had a way to know because political restrictions made polling so difficult. But with President Hosni Mubarak gone, major polling firms have been able to survey the Egyptian public three times now: in February by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in May by Gallup, and this week by Newsweek. Here's what they found about public approval for the Muslim Brotherhood:
That's right: after spending five months at 15 percent approval, Egypt's best known opposition party has this month spiked all the way up to 17 percent. The May Gallup poll also found that Mubarak's National Democratic Party -- the one that millions of Egyptians risked their lives to remove from power -- had 10 percent approval, not much less than the Muslim Brotherhood.
That's low, but just how low? For comparison, here are the approval ratings of modern American politicians either just before they lost elections (as with Jimmy Carter or John McCain) or at their history-making lows:
Not only is the Muslim Brotherhood less popular among Egyptians today than President Richard Nixon was among Americans right before he resigned in national disgrace, the Brothers are way less popular.
It's not hard to see why the Muslim Brotherhood gets so much attention despite enjoying so little popularity. The group, which has operated for decades despite a ban that was enforced either harshly or moderately, has played a real role in modern Egyptian politics. It's one of the best known parties because it's one of the only parties. It's also well organized, with a grassroots support base and the know-how to turn it out. Then again, Ron Paul also has an energetic grassroots support base and a campaign that knows how to turn them out, not to mention 33 percent approval, and few observers seem to take his bid for the GOP presidential primary -- much less the presidency -- very seriously.
We in the U.S. often assume that the most popular party will be the most powerful party. That might be true in a two-party system like ours, but it's not true in a multi-party system, where power comes from coalitions. Egypt has dozens of political parties, a number of them liberal, secular, or otherwise more moderate. The liberal secular vote might end up getting split six or seven ways, but once those parties get into Parliament they're likely to join up in a liberal secular coalition. Maybe that coalition would outnumber any Muslim Brotherhood-led conservative religious coalition, and maybe it wouldn't. But it seems clear that the Big Bad Brotherhood isn't much more popular in Egypt than it is on Fox News.
Update, June 25, 2012: Almost one year later, and four things have happened, in this order: The Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party won 37.5 percent in the January parliamentary election (the most of any party), the Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi won 24.78 percent in the May presidential election (the most of any candidate), Morsi went on to win the presidency with 51.73 percent of the run-off vote, and, finally, some people have pointed out that this post looks a little silly in retrospect.