Political Paradox in Middle East Countries


Political Science

The Leftist Paradox in Egyptian Politics

Tarek Masoud Faculty ResearcherTarek Masoud,
Associate Professor
of Public Policy,
Harvard Kennedy School
Paper TitleArabs Want Redistribution, So Why Don’t They Vote Left? Theory and Evidence from Egypt

Tarek Masoud—a political scientist, Middle East specialist, and Kennedy School Associate Professor—is puzzled by a phenomenon he’s observed in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. According to surveys that he’s conducted, the vast majority of voters purport to have left-leaning economic views, favoring the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. They also believe that government should bear responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. Yet these same people tend to vote for Islamist politicians—whose support for their economic positions is dubious—over leftist candidates who are steadfast champions of their avowed agenda. “What is going on here?” asks Masoud, who explores that question in his paper “Arabs Want Redistribution, So Why Don’t They Vote Left? Theory and Evidence from Egypt.”

The voting is often (and incorrectly) attributed to religious convictions, he says. About 90 percent of all Egyptians are Muslim, the argument goes, and people vote for Islamist candidates because they are conditioned by their religion to do so. But this line of reasoning may not get to the heart of the matter, Masoud claims: “Voters think that Islamists are supporting the policies they favor simply because they come into greater contact with Islamists.”

If so, how do Islamist parties manage to reach more voters than their secular opponents do? The answer lies in a social landscape “rich in religious networks and poor in networks of social action based on class or occupation.” Consequently, Masoud says, “Islamists possess multiple opportunities to communicate with voters and convince them of the fealty to their interests, whereas leftists—who may actually be truer to those interests—simply lack equivalent opportunities.” A dominant feature of this landscape is mosques, of which Egypt has more than 90,000. Islamist candidates normally spend lots of time in mosques, where they have occasion to speak up during services or interact with the public in other ways. “If a secular candidate that nobody knew tried to speak in a mosque, most people would view him skeptically, wondering what he was doing there,” Masoud observes. “They lack the ability to access voters through these widespread institutions.”

In addition to the mosques themselves, there is a large network of Islamic charitable organizations —“Muslim versions of the Salvation Army,” according to Masoud—that constitute “the plurality of private voluntary associations in Egypt.” Islamist political activists often join these organizations, thereby gaining the trust of people who’ve come to rely on the services provided.

No comparable outlets exist for leftist candidates. Although labor unions might appear to be a logical base of support for progressive parties, the country’s only legal union is controlled by the government, Masoud notes, “and it has generally worked to mute, not encourage, collective action.”

Masoud still holds out some hope for progressive forces in Egypt. The 2011 revolution against President Hosni Mubarak was fueled by economic problems, such as high unemployment and welfare cutbacks. If these problems persist, Masoud says, “it is likely that the benefit of doubt accorded to the Muslim Brotherhood (and its standard-bearer, President Mohamed Morsi) will wear thin.”

Leftists’ best hopes may lie in future presidential elections. In 2012, Hamdin Sabãhi—a journalist committed to workers and the poor and representing the Arab nationalist Karãma party  — placed a surprising third, coming within four percentage points of Morsi. At the national level, the organizational advantages held by Islamists can be diminished by televisions “beaming each candidate into living rooms and coffee shops throughout the country,” Masoud says. “As a result, voters are able to learn as much about the leader of a small party as they know about the leader of an 85-year-old Islamic movement.” If a minority candidate succeeds in becoming president, more resources will flow to his or her party. In this way, Masoud adds, “Those effects can percolate down, which is how new parties are built.” He’s anxious to learn how these findings about the prospects for progressive politics in Egypt apply to the rest of the developing world. But that’s a subject for future research.

— by Steve Nadis

“The voting is often (and incorrectly) attributed to religious convictions.”

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