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.