Egypt’s Slanted Playing Field

Should Hosni Mubarak serve out his current term as Egypt’s president until October, or should he leave tomorrow with his tail between his legs, there is no clear successor to take Egypt’s helm. Indeed, one of Mubarak’s more dubious accomplishments over the last 30 years was to undermine and destroy potential opposition leaders. But while the political field may soon be wide open, it will not be level. In the short term at least, and perhaps for much longer, Egypt’s politics are tilted against the more liberal and democratic elements of Egyptian society and in favor of the country’s Islamists.

It is difficult to gauge the true level of support the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys in Egypt.  Part of this is due to the restrictions facing pollsters and scholars seeking to learn about public opinion in an authoritarian state—an honest response to a stranger’s questions like “Do you support the Muslim Brotherhood?” or “Do you favor the regime?” was quite dangerous for Egyptian citizens. But an even bigger problem is that the Brotherhood has derived much of its support simply because it was the leading voice of the opposition. If the Mubarak regime is done and gone, this advantage fades (though the credibility the Brotherhood gained during its years of suffering under Mubarak will endure).

The Brotherhood’s more lasting advantage is organizational. Who leads Egypt next depends not just on candidates’ popularity but on their ability to mobilize Egyptians and get a coherent message out.

Liberal elements of Egyptian society have long found themselves under attack, with the regime locking up their leaders, banning their newspapers, and suppressing organized political activity. Capitalism became associated with cronyism, not a true free market.  And as Western policies grew more and more hated, liberals’ admiration for Western systems of government and fitful support they received from Washington also became suspect.

The Islamist opposition, in contrast, remains organized. Egyptian leaders of widely different political orientations all sought to ban or at least restrict the Brotherhood, yet it has prospered since its founding in 1928. Whether responding to the 1992 earthquake or setting up hospitals and schools for poorer Egyptians, the Brotherhood has repeatedly proven its effectiveness at a grassroots level. In 2005, it won a fifth of the seats in parliament despite being banned as a political party and not contesting many of the open seats—analysts believe the figure would have been far higher had the voting been free and fair. In 2010 the regime resorted to massive fraud and intimidation to reduce the Brotherhood’s position in parliament.

Organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute can play a role teaching political organization to the new activists who emerged in the last few weeks and otherwise bolstering more liberal elements in Egypt. But because the gap cannot be narrowed immediately, one of the biggest goals of the United States should be to buy time during any transition. If elections were held tomorrow, only the Brotherhood would have a strong political organization. Pushing back the date would not guarantee that more liberal forces do well, but it will give them a fighting chance.

In a rare stroke of fortune, the State Department official responsible for democratization programs such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative is Tamara Cofman Wittes, who has studied such problems carefully (see her book Freedom’s Unsteady March:  America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy, Brookings, 2008). As Wittes writes, U.S. efforts to promote democracy are often ineffective and can even backfire, but if done with care they can advance the cause of freedom. If she can put her ideas into practice, democratic forces in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East should get a boost.