There’s nothing like free and fair elections for finding out what people really think, and the big surprise of the Egyptian elections, the first since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last February, has been the strong level of public support for the Muslim Salafist movement, the conservatives whose overwhelming priority is to emulate the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad and his seventh century companions. Ironically, most of the outsiders who predicted the Salafist gains were Islamophobic Americans and Europeans who based their expectations on visceral disdain for the judgment of Egyptian voters, rather than on any knowledge of the country. Those closer to the electoral battlefield, on the other hand, including Egyptian political scientists and pundits, expected the Salafists to win only about 10 percent of the vote. After the first of three rounds of voting, the Nour Party alone, the most successful of the Salafist groups, had taken more than 24 percent, in second place behind the Muslim Brotherhood but well ahead of any liberal-secular group. The political scientists have some excuses: psephology, the science of elections, is in its infancy in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, along with the related sciences of opinion polling and market surveying. Besides, in a society where speaking one’s mind in public could be unwise, whatever polling did take place was liable to misrepresent reality.
Journalists and proto-psephologists have come up with a variety of reasons why the Salafists have proven so unexpectedly popular. One of the most promising lines of enquiry is that the Salafist sympathizers have been there all along, at about the weight suggested in the elections, but they took a tactical decision many years ago not to take part in the political process. Researcher Nathan Field notes that in work he did on television viewing in Egypt in 2008, Salafist stations were clearly drawing higher ratings than any others but no channels existed for this preference to find political expression.
With the collapse of the old regime, the Salafists made a sudden and concerted switch into political activist mode, taking advantage of new networks to meet and discuss topics such as Muslim orthopraxy in everyday life. Anecdotal evidence from individual Salafist voters corroborates this theory, though some of them have said they cooperated with and voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, for want of a better alternative, in previous elections. Salafist voters have also emphasized their personal acquaintanceship with the candidates they favor, suggesting a well-established social nexus at the local level. Another explanation is that politics in Egypt, as in many developing countries, has always been skewed toward the urban elite to the disadvantage of the rural poor, many of whom are illiterate and disengaged from central government. Under the Mubarak regime, the rural poor could easily be persuaded, bribed, coerced or intimidated into voting for the ruling party, but in 2011, with the field wide open and no guidance from authorities, they turned to those they knew and trusted. At some polling stations in the countryside, whole neighborhoods appeared to be voting for the Nour Party, but without any overt regimentation by the party’s operatives. The Salafists’ opponents and detractors have attributed the success of the Nour Party to large injections of Saudi cash, both to run its campaigns and to finance hand-outs of basic foodstuffs to the poor — a common electoral practice by many candidates. Newspapers say the ruling military council has collected details of all foreign payments that might have helped political parties or candidates, but until they release them it is hard to assess the impact. Field’s research quotes Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist close to the Saudi government, as saying the Saudis are not in the business of encouraging other Islamist alternatives, so it is hard to see what they would gain from financing the Egyptian Salafists. Wikileaks evidence, on the other hand, suggests that the Saudi government has spread its largesse quite widely among Arab politicians, to keep them on its side.
The sudden switch from political quietism to a new role as the second largest group in parliament has not been a smooth one. Leading members of the Nour Party have sent enough mixed signals in recent weeks to seriously discredit most political movements in ordinary times — especially on alcohol, tourism, the economy and personal freedoms. But the party has struck a chord that no other group has touched, a chord that many did not even know existed.
JONATHAN WRIGHT is managing editor of Arab Media and Society