Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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Is the Muslim Brotherhood Bribing Voters in Egypt?

by Ed Husain
November 9, 2011

Essam El Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, speaks during a news conference in Cairo on April 30, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Free meat, subsidized vegetables, and sweets for children are the Muslim Brotherhood’s bribes for votes from Egypt’s poor. This charm offensive by Egypt’s most organized political force was in full force during last weekend’s religious celebrations. During sermons on Eid al-Adha, Brotherhood representatives conveyed the message that voting for Islamist parties was synonymous with being an upright Muslim. This flawed appeal for support—as it is perfectly coherent to be a pious Muslim and vote for a secular party—was supplemented by pro-Brotherhood clerics’ anti-Western messages, documented in this report on the website of state-run newspaper Al-Ahram.

None of this is particularly surprising. Hamas in Gaza has used social services to secure the sympathy of Palestinians, Hezbollah does so in Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has used welfare support for more than three decades as a means of recruiting new supporters and legitimizing its continued presence in communities across Egypt. Where the state failed, the Muslim Brotherhood entered with charity work, building low-cost hospitals, supporting orphans and widows, and running vocational training programs.

This noble support for Egypt’s poor, however, smacks of bribery and corruption when used at election time to gain votes, undercut political opposition, and portray the Muslim Brotherhood as God’s good soldiers against the secular and liberal Egyptians. For as long as such practices continue, Egypt’s elections will not be fair and free—they will have been manipulated from the outset.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership repeatedly claims a commitment to fairness and transparency. Will it cease these political operations in order to ensure that Egyptian elections are conducted on a level playing field? I doubt it.

Mosques in Egypt are not solely the preserve of Islamists. Egyptians of all hues build, maintain, and help fund places of religious worship. If mosques become places of political campaigning, then Islamists and Salafists cannot monopolize this public space. All Egyptian political parties have a right to present their arguments and policy positions and to do so with legal protection and scrutiny. Those regulating elections in Egypt have a duty to ensure that the current unfair advantage of Islamist and Salafists is corrected as a matter of urgency. If this imbalance continues, other political parties will have every right to claim foul play after the election, legitimately contest the outcome, and question its validity.


  • Posted by bruce


    very succinct comments regarding the elections coming up in Egypt

  • Posted by Ed Husain

    Thank you, Bruce.

  • Posted by Thomas


    My analysis leads me to believe that it is not the Ikwan that Egyptians need worry about. Instead, the focus should be on the nature of the changing of the guard that happened earlier this year—(meaning) have the Egyptians experienced yet another coup, and if so, do the elections matter?

  • Posted by Ed Husain

    Thomas, good point, but I think both issues (rise of the Ikhwan and their Salafi cousins, increasing authority of the SCAF) warrant varying degrees of concerns. Thank you for stopping by. Ed

  • Posted by Geoff

    “This noble support for Egypt’s poor, however, smacks of bribery and corruption when used at election time to gain votes, […]”

    These kinds of rash and naïve assessments speak volumes on your ignorance of the history of the MB as a social institution in Egyptian society. Expect better from CFR.

  • Posted by Alistair


    As you point out, the Brotherhood has tended to provide health care, subsidized food and goods, and various other items, even on years where there were no elections, and during crackdowns on the group. It’s a big part of their raison etre. Should we expect them to stop because they now have a political party?

    Also, I’m troubled by the ready excuse we’ll probably see trotted out every time liberals and secularists lose an election in Egypt for the next decade or so–“Oh, it wasn’t fair, because the Islamists brainwashed/bribed people.” Really? As opposed to those groups’ abject failure to engage with the grassroots and find common ground with a religiously conservative populace?

    That’s exactly what we saw when 77% of voters voted in favor the referendum in March. Besides which, many of those parties are guilty of similar tactics, with the addition of scaremongering directed against anyone with a beard.

    It’s incredibly demeaning to have every vote won by an Islamist dismissed as evidence of the ignorance or gullibility of the masses, who just vote because someone with a beard pretended to speak on behalf of God.

    Some of these so-called liberals need to figure out whether they really want a democracy, or whether they subscribe to the “We’re-not-ready-for-a-democracy-because-people-don’t-know-better-than-to-vote for-money-or-fundy’s” school of thought so aptly used by Mubarak.

  • Posted by Shady

    As a Cairene, I wholeheartedly agree with Ed’s comments.

    For example, the committee overseeing the parliamentary election supposedly laid down some ground rules, in an effort to make the elections relatively fair. One of these rules banned using places of worship for campaigning purposes; this has been trampled on by the Islamist parties, the MB included. Needless to say, the MB et al has escaped unscathed, with the election committee & SCAF shying away from facing up to them.

    In addition to the usual back-stabbing, hypocritical tactics employed by politicians the world over, the MB also adds a divine twist to it’s rhetoric. Throw in impoverished masses with a sky-high illiteracy rate, and you have the powderkeg that is the political landscape before the parliamentary elections.

    In response to Alistair’s post, liberals and more secular Egyptians aren’t crying foul solely because of their own shortcomings (of which there are plenty), it’s because of the playing field that heavily favours the Islamist tide. The laws and regulations are only ever applied to the liberals and intellectuals.

    I strongly believe that things will pick up on the long run. Unfortunately, for the time being, Egypt’s between a rock and a hard place (with a long beard).