How repressing the Brotherhood could have unintended consequences in Egypt

January 23
Members of an Egyptian family in Cairo sit on a motorbike under a banner reading, “Go down participate and say yes for Egypt’s constitution and no for terrorism,” ahead of a referendum on a new charter last week. (Khalil Hamra/AP)
Members of an Egyptian family in Cairo sit on a motorbike under a banner reading, “Go down participate and say yes for Egypt’s constitution and no for terrorism,” ahead of a referendum on a new charter last week. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post by Princeton University political scientist and Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Nugent, a former Fulbright Scholar in Cairo.

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Egyptians went to the polls again last week to approve yet another constitution, the country’s third in as many years. But this constitution, which replaces the one approved in a referendum in December 2012, is different in that it essentially legalizes the marginalization of the Muslim Brotherhood (for those interested, Al Jazeera provides a detailed comparison of the texts of the 2012 and 2013 constitutions here). Islam remains the “religion of the state,” and the “principles of sharia” continue to be the “main source of legislation,” according to the draft. However, it removes provisions from the 2012 constitution that gave a more detailed definition of those Islamic principles on which legislation would be based. Perhaps most importantly, and most blatantly, the new document outlaws parties “formed on the basis of religion.”

The referendum can be considered the latest incident in the escalating conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, marked by months of increasing repression inflicted on the Brotherhood at the hands of the military-led government. On July 3, military officers removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president – and former Muslim Brotherhood member – Mohamed Morsi from office in the wake of massive popular protests. The same decision suspended the constitution passed under Morsi and installed an interim government, officially presided over by a senior jurist but with the military at the helm.

While the protests that led to Morsi’s ouster were widely supported and based on a year of real policy failures under the former administration, the military has exploited the widespread frustration with Morsi and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to declare open season on the Brotherhood and its supporters. In August, at least 648 people were killed and thousands more were injured when the military used force to clear protesters demonstrating in support of Morsi in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya and al-Nahda squares, according to official estimates. In the months since, the military has imprisoned leading members of the Brotherhood in numbers surpassing the Hosni Mubarak era. On Dec. 25, the government designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and has since made it clear that any individual – or puppet – expressing support for the group or its ideas could be subjected to the law. The decision came after the government assigned blame to the Brotherhood for a suicide bombing at a police headquarters outside Cairo that killed 16 people. The fact that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a jihadi group that has criticized the Brotherhood for its lack of militancy, publicly claimed responsibility for the bombing confirms that this is a thinly veiled move by the military to permanently sideline the Brotherhood from the Egyptian political scene. Taken in combination with the explicit provisions of the constitution, it appears that open season on the Brotherhood continues.

One possible consequence is that repression of the Brotherhood might foster popular support for Islamism – something that can safely be assumed to be the exact opposite intention of the Egyptian military’s actions. As I’ve previously written on the Monkey Cage, support for a central role for religion in political life has historically been high in Egypt, and forthcoming public opinion data collected over recent months in Egypt suggest that this has not changed. Support for Islamism, defined by the strength of an individual’s support for the implementation of shari`a, is the best predictor of an individual’s support for Islamist parties. What effect might the political repression, as currently inflicted by the government, have on support for Islamism and Islamist parties?

In order to better understand the relationship between political repression and individual support for Islamism, I utilize data collected during the second wave of the Arab Barometer, conducted in 2010 and 2011, that measure the level of support for implementation of shari`a. The data come from 12,773 respondents in 10 Muslim-majority countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen).

My main interest is in the effect of repression on this support. To best measure this, I use data from Freedom House on what is known as “associational rights.” This measure assesses whether citizens have the ability to organize into different political parties, the existence of a significant opposition vote, and the ability for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections. A low score indicates low levels of these rights, suggesting a more repressive regime.

Controlling for important individual-level factors (including age, gender, financial security, marital status and measures of religiosity, as well as important attitudes toward the regime, corruption and globalization – attributes and attitudes that the literature has posited are important predictors of support for Islamism and Islamist parties), I find that that increased levels of political repression at the hands of the state are positively related at a statistically significant level to individual levels of support for Islamism. When we simulate an increase from the lowest to the highest associational-rights score across the countries included in the sample, we see that the  probability of an individual saying they “strongly agree” with the implementation of shari`a increases by over 50 percent:

Data: Arab Barometer; Figure: Elizabeth Nugent
Data: Arab Barometer; Figure: Elizabeth Nugent

This cross-country analysis suggests that levels of repression are positively related to increased support for Islamism. It is not entirely clear what this relationship means or captures, and in my research I am continuing to explore the exact mechanism through which increased repression increases support for Islamism and Islamist parties by expanding the analysis to measure change over time within countries. A number of questions remain: Does support for Islamism increase in more politically repressed societies because supporting Islamist and Islamist parties comes to represent opposition to the regime? Or is there something about political repression that drives individuals, already ranked high on various measurements of religiosity, to specifically increase their support for religious opposition parties?

While support for the Brotherhood has undoubtedly waned over the past year, applying increased repression to parties and individuals does not appear likely to achieve the military’s goals. In addition, not allowing the Brotherhood to play a political role may actually change peoples’ attitudes about Islamism.

Thus, consistent with every theory and instinct about democratic consolidation, it appears that adequate electoral freedom – in combination, of course, with electoral pluralism and a commitment to democratic institutions by all actors, irrespective of short-term outcomes and control – is the only way Egypt can move forward from its current impasse.  In fact, allowing the Brotherhood to continue to contest politics – and win and lose at the polls – may more efficiently achieve the military’s objective of sidelining the party in the long term.

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