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, somepeople have pointed out that this post looks a little silly in retrospect.
So what happened? How did a party scoring consistently under 20 percent approval do so well in national elections? Here are a few possible explanations. One is that the Brotherhood has worked much harder over the last year to appeal to Egyptian voters and overcome public skepticism. As the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook explained in defense of his own early-2011 MB-takeover skepticism, "they were at that moment compromised by their slow response to the uprising and their subsequent efforts to strike deals with Omar Suleiman and the SCAF, sowing distrust among revolutionaries, liberals, and others." It is true that the Brotherhood, in the uncertain months of mid-2011, when it was even more unclear than today how much power the military would wield in post-Mubarak government, allowed themselves to stand a little closer to the military than they do today. That dynamic changed in late 2011, especially after the awful military violence at Maspero, and saw the Brotherhood spend a little less energy courting the military and a little more courting voters.
Another possible explanation is that, however much people might dislike the Brotherhood, they dislike their other options a lot more -- call it the "least worst" explanation for Brotherhood success. Morsi's presidential run-off opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, is closely tied to the old regime and Mubarak personally, yet was only one percentage point behind Morsi in the first presidential vote and three points behind in the run-off.
A similar explanation could be that, after decades of claustrophobic dictatorship, the Brotherhood was simply the only battle-tested party in Egypt, other than the parties and officials tied to the Mubarak order. The Egyptian economy is a disaster, public health is worsening, and law-and-order is bottoming out -- Egyptians might be looking for a steady hand right now, and the liberal parties turned out to be mostly good at infighting, while the Brotherhood put on a deeply impressive nationwide campaign, including in Middle Egypt, where millions of people live but the liberal, socialist, and nationalist parties had little presence.
And, of course, a final explanation is that I simply got it wrong, and read too deeply into these public opinion polls. (I am not a polling expert, but the folks at Gallup et al. are, so I'm not going to call their work into question.) The post-Mubarak Egyptian drama has gone through many twists and turns over the last year, some of them surprising and some of them not, and there's no telling where it will end up by this time next year.