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November 28, 2010

Why Would Someone Vote in A Rigged Election?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I find it somewhat remarkable that Arabs, in large numbers, vote in elections that are dubious at best and perhaps even "meaningless" (yet another piece of evidence that should put to rest the notion that Arabs are predisposed to authoritarianism). I wrote about the odd but rather intriguing phenomenon of "free, sort of fair, and meaningless elections" in this recent piece for Foreign Policy. However, the phenomenon of Arabs voting en masse (examples include Bahrain and Jordan) does not include Egypt. 

Today, some Egyptians went to the polls to vote for a parliament with limited powers. People are saying that actual turnout may have been in the single digits. Even official turnout figures are likely to be quite low by the region's standards.

So, yes, there was an election today, but there was something surreal about it. I spent time in one of the "hottest" districts  (shubra al kheima) where a popular Brotherhood candidate is pitted against a ruling party figure. There were campaign posters and colorful signs everywhere. There were candidates. There were political parties. And there were polling stations. There were also a lot of journalists (and at least one American think tank analyst) covering the proceedings. 

So much seemed at stake but very little, it seemed, actually was. 

Egyptians were, and are, aware of this. In developed democracies, people vote (or think they vote) for distinctive political programs. In the US, we know what Republicans want (lower taxes) and we try our best to understand what Democrats want (universal healthcare?). Today in Egypt, no one seemed to be voting for programs (I didn't hear one substantive conversation about policy the whole day). There are two primary groups that vote here: first, supporters and clients of the ruling party. The National Democratic Party is a vehicle for channeling and articulating the interests of the particular segments of Egyptian society that benefit from the status quo. The NDP buses in civil servants, while individual candidates promise favors to constituents in their districts. This is the classic patron-client model. This model is reinforced by the small number of votes needed to win in certain districts (as low as 3000 votes). 

Then there's the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a mainstream Islamist movement that doubles as the country's largest opposition group. I've spent the past couple days in Cairo and Alexandria trying to get a better sense of the Brotherhood's "get-out-the-vote" operation. One MB campaign worker, unaware that it sounded somewhat implausible, told me that the group has an internal vote turnout of nearly 100 percent. In other words, everyone who is formally a Muslim Brotherhood member is expected to vote, and actually does. I challenged him on this but he seemed pretty sure of himself. As dubious as it is, the basic point remains - and it is an important one: The Brotherhood, in part because it is a religious movement rather than a political party, has the sort of organizational discipline that Western parties can only dream of. 

Being a Brotherhood member means being part of a community and signing on to, among other things, a rigorous educational curriculum. Members are part of something called an usra, or family, which meets weekly. In other words, if a Brother chooses to stay home on election day, other Brothers will know. At each polling station, there is a Brotherhood coordinator who essentially does a whip count. Because the number of Brothers registered to vote at a particular polling station is usually small (in the hundreds), this is doable in some districts. The coordinator stays there the whole day watching who comes and goes and tallies up the figures. If you were supposed to go and didn't, he will know. Again, I found this somewhat dubious, but then the coordinator explained a little bit more: 'Well, you have to understand - I know every single Brother who lives in this area."


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Thanks for this Shadi. I knew the Brotherhood could get high turnout rates, but didn't realize they were this organized/disciplined.

I believe that the lack of voter participation is a huge problem for Egyptian democratization. First of all, the regime announced publicly and very clearly that it would not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to win. It is unfortunate, but there is no conspiracy here. Meanwhile most secular Egyptians, both the secular parties and individual voters, boycotted the election and stayed home.
Why would someone vote in a rigged election? Because voting in a rigged election does not inherently legitimize the election. If the NDP is going to steal the election through fraud, then everyone will know and it doesn't matter what voter turnout % is. The NDP does not seem bothered at all to win 100% of parliament seats. You mention MB supporters going to the polls in large numbers. What about el-Wafd? Was el-Wafd the victim of fraud or did they just not have any voters? In any case, I would guess that most non-MB voters on Sunday were NDP supporters.
It is important that Egyptians vote in every election, even if they are limited elections or fraudulent elections. First, political parties need to get Egyptians involved with the party and the primary way of participating in a political party is by voting. Second, one development overlooked this year is that the NDP ran multiple candidates in some districts. This is very exciting, because even if all candidates are from the NDP, it gives voters a real choice. And if Egyptians go to the polls and vote, then these NDP politicians will see that they gain their power from the people and not from the party. Thus, politicians will be more inclined to listen to voter concerns rather than follow the party boss. It is like a Republican or Democratic primary election in the US. Everyone is from the same party, but there is still an important choice.

ook me awhile to read all the comments, but I really love the article.

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This is very exciting, because even if all candidates are from the NDP, it gives voters a real choice. And if Egyptians go to the polls and vote, then these NDP politicians will see that they gain their power from the people and not from the party. These all are great.

On my Egypt Air flight yesterday to Cairo, I witnessed one of the more intriguing in-flight exchanges that I can remember. A bearded, well-dressed man sitting a few seats behind me began shouting at the flight attendant. He was complaining that the in-flight movie was inappropriate. What are these “offensive images?” he asked. These included a 15-minute stretch of the movie where at least one woman at any given time was wearing a bikini. In a couple of scenes at a club, members of opposite sexes were dancing in close proximity while, it appeared, consuming alcoholic beverages. “Are we really all Westernized now?” the man behind me asked, as if posing a question to those of us in the back of the plane.

The man’s arguments were rather interesting. He pointed out that if you took a poll of the passengers,ugg boots outlet most would agree the film was morally offensive. He asked the attendant, “if we ask the passengers what they think and they agree with me, then what will you do?” The attendant responded, “we don’t take public opinion (ra’i al ‘am) on the airplane.” The man was right: most passengers, and most Egyptians – the vast majority of whom don’t drink, go to clubs, or wear bikinis – would object to the film’s content. But at what point do they have the right to restrict minority expressions of unfaithfulness?

It was an odd, amusing exchange that justified the otherwise unpleasant experience of flying on EgyptAir.ugg boots clearance But it was a reminder of the fundamental lack of consensus in the Arab world over the boundaries and limits of the state. There are two groups – Islamists and secular elites – with worldviews which couldn’t be more different. They live parallel lives in parallel worlds, with parallel institutions. They rarely intersect.ugg boots clearance One group believes it has both history and the Egyptian people on its side. The other side, considerably smaller in number, likely has neither. It does, however, have the power.

This stalemate has paralyzed the Arab world for decades now.ugg boots outlet

Sunday’s elections will be just another version of this.ugg boots clearance The main players are the Muslim Brotherhood – populist, religious, and righteous – and the regime coalition which, with its president soon to pass, finds itself in an uncertain place. Both sides are strong in different ways – and weak in others. Neither seems to have anything resembling a coherent strategy for dealing with the impending transition that is soon to come.

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Good post. I am also going to write a blog post about this...I enjoyed reading your post and I like your take on the issue. Thanks.

That is an awfully astounding column you've posted.Thanks a lot for that a fantastically amazing post!

It's funny how we adopt words and adapt our lexicon to the times. This is a very useful slant on things.

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