How Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Is Already Winning

Numbers, savvy, and years of experience make the Brotherhood a formidable political organizing force

hamid nov16 p.jpg


CAIRO, Egypt -- Why and how do people vote? What motivates them? These are just some of the questions being asked ahead of Egypt's upcoming elections, which will begin on November 28th. No one knows much about the voting habits of Egyptians. This, after all, is the first time in perhaps six decades they'll be casting ballots in truly meaningful elections. In some sense, though, it isn't rocket science. This is something that the Muslim Brotherhood -- the country's oldest and largest Islamist party -- has long understood.

On November 16, I observed a Brotherhood "election march" in Ard al-Liwa, one of dozens occurring simultaneously across Egypt. The election march, or maseera, is deceptively simply but, at the same time, difficult for non-Islamist parties to replicate -- one reason why no one else seems to be doing it.

The gathering point is almost always outside a mosque just after the evening prayer, which Brotherhood members are likely to be attending anyway. This guarantees the group a critical mass with relatively minimal effort.

In Ard al-Liwa, the streets are not ideal for cars, so many residents use a tuktuk, a sort of three-wheeled motorized cart to navigate the narrow alleys. The participants -- numbering in the low hundreds - organized themselves into rows of three or four, often filling the width of street. Before the march began, they announced: "jihad is our path, Prophet Mohamed is our leader, and the Quran our constitution" (al-jihad sabeeluna, al rasool za'eemuna, w'al quran dusturuna) -- a seemingly out-of-place relic in an otherwise modern, traditional campaign.

Two of the Brotherhood's parliamentary candidates led the way. They walked up to residents -- many of them storekeepers -- quickly introduced themselves and shook hands. Behind them, the marchers were trailed by a pickup truck with a loudspeaker. If you happened to be in the area it was impossible to ignore. Everywhere, I noticed people coming out on their balconies to see what was happening.  

After the candidates would shake hands with some onlooker, a volunteer would hand him a flyer and say a few quick words. Often, the volunteer engaged residents in conversation and, judging by their interest, wrote their names and phone numbers down on a piece of paper. As one volunteer told me, interested individuals can either join the Brotherhood's political party -- Freedom and Justice (FJP) -- or participate in other activities organized by either the party or the Brotherhood itself.

The chants -- focusing on freedom and justice -- alternated between the predictable and the vaguely intriguing. The marchers were at pains to repeat at regular intervals that the party was founded by the Brotherhood (hizb assasuha al Ikhwan). There was no effort to paint Freedom and Justice as a distinct entity (although party and movement are technically administratively separate). One of the younger volunteers explained to me, "Some people still don't know it's the Brotherhood's party, so this is something we always try to make clear."

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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