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."