Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Ikhwan's Organization

Shadi Hamid explains the election organization of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood:
"During last November's parliamentary contest -- arguably the most fraudulent Egypt had ever seen -- I had the chance to witness the Brotherhood's 'get-out-the-vote' operation up close. One Brotherhood campaign worker, perhaps unaware it would sound somewhat implausible, told me that the organization has an internal vote turnout of nearly 100 percent. In other words, everyone who is an active Muslim Brotherhood member is expected to vote and actually does. Even if this is a stretch, it is true that the Brotherhood, in part because it is a religious movement rather than a political party, has the sort of organizational discipline of which competing parties can only dream.

"This discipline is deeply rooted in the organization's culture. Each Muslim Brotherhood member signs on to a rigorous educational curriculum and is part of something called an usra, or family, which meets weekly. If a Brother chooses to stay home on election day, other Brothers will know. But it's not just a matter of peer expectations. At each polling station, there is a Brotherhood coordinator who essentially does a whip count. Because the number of voters at a particular polling station can be quite small -- with the number of Brothers in the hundreds -- this is feasible in many districts. The 'whip' stays there the entire day, watching who comes and goes and tallies up the figures. If you were supposed to go and didn't, the whip will know. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, one such whip assured me, 'Well, you have to understand -- I know every single Brother who lives in the area.'"

Late last month we were covering the Muslim Brotherhood in my "Islam and Politics in the Modern Middle East" course, and my students wholeheartedly rejected the idea that any group that size could have the discipline level it claimed, with student veterans saying that not even the U.S. military did. I encouraged this some by noting its tendency to spin out breakaway groups. The MB is definitely more ideologically diffuse than is often recognized, but this account does point to how strong a short-term vote-whipping operation could be. Hamid's larger point is that along with inexperienced and highly fragmented competition, the Brotherhood's organization is like to cause it to outperform its frequently referenced 30% support in polls, polls which in any case strike me as uncertain due to what I imagine are significant difficulties in statistically modeling Egypt politically. I agree, though, that free elections are likely to give Islamists a turn dominating parliament, for better or worse.



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