How Large Is Egypt's Religious "Right"?

Does the experience of the Brotherhood under Egypt's electoral authoritarian system provide us with a good estimate of how religiously oriented parties and candidates might do in future, more free elections? The answer is not at all clear.
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An important next step in Egypt's transition -- whether it occurs this September, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has announced he will not run for reelection, or sooner -- will almost necessarily involve free elections in which citizens are given the opportunity to choose among a full slate of candidates, representing a range of ideological backgrounds.

Under such conditions, how well can we expect candidates associated with Egypt's religious "right" to perform? Past experience suggests that under the most free of conditions during Mubarak's thirty years in power, candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, enjoyed about a 20 percent share of the vote. Does the experience of the Brotherhood under Egypt's electoral authoritarian system provide us with a good estimate of how religiously oriented parties and candidates might do in future, more free elections? The answer is not at all clear.

We might want to think about this 20 percent as a reasonable lower bound for performance of Egypt's key Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. If under conditions of pretty serious repression (as was witnessed in the 2005 parliamentary elections), the Brotherhood could perform at this level, it seems quite reasonable that under more free conditions, the group -- or a similar one -- could garner even greater support.

But what of an upper bound on the vote share for the Egyptian religious right? In a 2008 research article, we examined the attitudes and political preferences of the Egyptian public, using public opinion data collected as part of the World Values Survey. Although Egyptians as a whole consider themselves to be highly religious, there remains a significant amount of variation in individuals' particular political and social beliefs.

Our study identified the absolute most religiously and politically conservative segment of the Egyptian public; a bloc characterized by deep personal piety, support for the confluence of politics and religion, and, quite frequently, a worldview that systematically favors men over women. Why does a preference for patriarchy matter? Scholars of Islamic thought offer some insight here. According to jurist Khalid Abou El Fadl, advocates of the religious right in Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries have "appropriated women's dignity into a symbol of honor for men," believing that the easiest and most effective way to prove one's religious legitimacy is to call for laws that are restrictive of women. As a result, those in Egypt's religious right have increasingly focused their attention on issues of morality, particularly as they pertain to the reputation and chastity of women.

Given this definition of the religious right in Egypt, we estimate that just over 60 percent of Egyptians might fall into this category. Among men, the proportion jumps to 80 percent, versus 45 percent of women. Another 20 percent of Egyptians -- predominantly women -- report beliefs indicating strong religious commitment, but not sharing the patriarchal values associated with the religious right. This leaves just 20 percent of Egyptians who meet conventional definitions of what we might think of as secular.

The personal piety of most regular Egyptians will come as no surprise to those who have spent any time in the country -- and, of course, there is no guarantee that all (or even most) of these religiously-minded individuals would necessarily be supporters of religiously based parties. Nor is there any guarantee that a party of the religious right in Egypt would be significantly different than the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Nevertheless, our analysis indicates that the social and religious preferences of the Egyptian public are among the most conservative in the Muslim world. It remains to be seen whether Islamist political elites are able to mobilize this potential base of supporters in an upcoming, potentially free election.

Lisa Blaydes is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and the author of Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak's Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Drew Linzer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory University and the co-author of Electoral Systems and the Balance of Consumer-Producer Power (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Their research article is "The Political Economy of Women's Support for Fundamentalist Islam," World Politics (2008), 60(4): 576-609.

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