How Large is Egypt’s Potential “Religious Right”?

Political scientists Drew Linzer and Lisa Blaydes have an article at The Huffington Post where they attempt to estimate an answer to this question based on research they did for a 2008 World Politics article (“gated”:; ungated). Their conclusions:

We might want to think about this 20 percent as a reasonable lower bound for performance of Egypt’s key Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. If under conditions of pretty serious repression (as was witnessed in the 2005 parliamentary elections), the Brotherhood could perform at this level, it seems quite reasonable that under more free conditions, the group—or a similar one—could garner even greater support.
But what of an upper bound on the vote share for the Egyptian religious right? In a 2008 research article, we examined the attitudes and political preferences of the Egyptian public, using public opinion data collected as part of the World Values Survey. Although Egyptians as a whole consider themselves to be highly religious, there remains a significant amount of variation in individuals’ particular political and social beliefs.
Our study identified the absolute most religiously and politically conservative segment of the Egyptian public; a bloc characterized by deep personal piety, support for the confluence of politics and religion, and, quite frequently, a worldview that systematically favors men over women. Why does a preference for patriarchy matter? Scholars of Islamic thought offer some insight here. According to jurist Khalid Abou El Fadl, advocates of the religious right in Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries have “appropriated women’s dignity into a symbol of honor for men,” believing that the easiest and most effective way to prove one’s religious legitimacy is to call for laws that are restrictive of women. As a result, those in Egypt’s religious right have increasingly focused their attention on issues of morality, particularly as they pertain to the reputation and chastity of women.
Given this definition of the religious right in Egypt, we estimate that just over 60 percent of Egyptians might fall into this category. Among men, the proportion jumps to 80 percent, versus 45 percent of women. Another 20 percent of Egyptians—predominantly women—report beliefs indicating strong religious commitment, but not sharing the patriarchal values associated with the religious right. This leaves just 20 percent of Egyptians who meet conventional definitions of what we might think of as secular.

I want to draw readers’ attention to the authors’ use of the idea of bounds. Their piece should not be read to say the Muslim Brotherhood will win 60% of the vote in a fair election, and therefore would automatically capture the presidency in a presidential election. Instead, their data suggests that we might want to think about the likely support for a Muslim Brotherhood type party as falling somewhere between 20% and 60%. This is obviously a wide range, but it does represent a first step towards bringing hard data to this question as opposed to speculation.

3 Responses to How Large is Egypt’s Potential “Religious Right”?

  1. Emily February 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    I think another issue to consider is the competition. To what degree are/have other parties managed to form, and do we expect any of them to be as successful or influential as an organization that is widely-established, well-networked, and perceived as playing an important current role in Egyptian society? (See, for example, Rosefsky-Wickham’s excellent Mobilizing Islam for an overview of the roles played by the Muslim Brotherhood.)

    I get worried that the leftists are about to get entirely co-opted, a la the Iranian socialists, not because the Muslim Brotherhood is the universal choice there but because there seems to be no clear direction besides a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt. The mysterious and meteoric rise of ElBaradai seems both very convenient from the perspective of pacifying the West and unsupported at the local level.

  2. chris February 3, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Don’t you need a pretty weak definition of “Islamist” to shoehorn the MB under that label? They’re not exactly al-Qaeda, from what I have heard.


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