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How migration to the Gulf is influencing Egyptian voters

- September 17, 2016
A man shows his ink-marked finger after voting in Egypt’s 2014 presidential election. (Hossam Fadl/al-Masry al-Youm via European Pressphoto Agency)

In Egypt’s first democratic election after the uprisings, Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour party, dominated the polls. Though much has been written about the organizational efforts of the Islamist groups, one intriguing factor has been overlooked: the formative role of migration to Saudi Arabia for many Egyptians.

In our new study, co-authored with Talha Köse and Mesut Özcan, we reveal some illuminating insights about the real relationship between migration and the rise of the Salafist movement in Egypt.

Shortly after the final round of the parliamentary elections in early 2012, we conducted a survey with around 1,100 Egyptians. Employing stratified random sampling, we divided each governorate into urban and rural areas, including cities, towns and villages from each — though excluding villages in distant rural areas because of accessibility and cost. Afterward, using random sampling, we chose households and individuals to interview. Of the respondents, some 20 percent were part of a migrant family — that is, they or their family members had worked abroad for at least six months. Of these migrant families, 31 percent — 6 percent of the sample total — had a family member who had lived in Saudi Arabia.

The scale of the migrant experience among Egyptians should not be surprising. The newly established Gulf sheikdoms recruited Egyptians and other Arab migrants from non-Gulf Arab countries for newly created institutions. Then migration to Saudi Arabia gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s and accelerated with the 1974 oil spike, as Egyptians took positions ranging from high-ranking bureaucrats to unskilled laborers for development projects. While most Egyptians started to migrate for political and economic reasons, the causes of such migration differed across time. While politics also played a major role, especially in the 1950s and 1960s economic opportunities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries increased the magnitude of migration. In particular, the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and other small Islamist groups by the nationalist/socialist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser pushed their supporters to neighboring newly emerging states in the Gulf and other oil-rich countries in 1950s and 1960s.

Troubled by the rise of Arab nationalism, these new Gulf regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, welcomed the Islamist leaders, professionals and workers, provided that they did not interfere in domestic politics and were loyal to the regime. Migration scholars, like J.S. Birks, C.A. Sinclair and Andrzej Kapiszewski, provide empirical data to contextualize Arab migration in the Gulf countries. The biggest economy of the region, Saudi Arabia, prioritized Arab migration to such a degree that, at its peak in the 1970s, about 90 percent of all migrant workers in the country were Arabs.

Though that number declined in the years of low oil prices and especially in the late 1990s as a result of the Gulf War, Egyptians actively continued to migrate, thanks to Egypt’s participation in the coalition forces against Saddam Hussein. Official statistics for the late 1990s show that, of the non-Gulf Arab population in Saudi Arabia, 900,000 were Egyptians, followed by 700,000 Yemenis and 300,000 Palestinians and Jordanians. Egyptians also made up a significant proportion of the non-Gulf Arab population in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, numbering up to 400,000 in 2004. The official statistics may actually underestimate the extent of Egyptian migration to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries because of illegal migration, but they clearly indicate that the cultural and religious interaction between the Gulf countries and Egypt has consisted of more than just financial flows from public and private organizations from the Gulf.

So how exactly have these decades of migration to Saudi Arabia impacted voting in Egypt?

My results suggest that migrant family members connected to the Gulf voted heavily for the major parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist al-Nour party. While only 30 percent of non-migrants voted for the FJP, 36 percent of Gulf migrant families did so. Disaggregating Gulf migrant family members by destination country, support for the FJP was 32 percent for those who had migrated to Saudi Arabia, but 45 percent and 53 percent for those who had migrated to Kuwait and the UAE, respectively. While the numbers are too small to draw unequivocal conclusions, it is striking that the migrants to Saudi Arabia in our sample did not seem to differ from non-migrant families in terms of voting for the FJP but that the ones to Kuwait and the UAE did.

Migration destinations and party choice in 2011-2012 parliamentary elections in Egypt

The same is not the case for the Salafist al-Nour party. The strongest support for al-Nour came from voters whose family members had migrated to Saudi Arabia. While only 15 percent of non-migrant families voted for al-Nour in Egypt, among migrant families this figure increased to 26 percent for all Gulf countries and 32 percent for Saudi Arabia. Compared with other countries, the size of migration to Saudi Arabia and the share of al-Nour’s vote among these migrant families suggest a strong link between migration to Saudi Arabia and the electoral success of al-Nour.

Like any survey in Egypt, our survey has several limitations. Our sample is urban-biased, and we cannot determine religious and political affiliation before migrants leave for Saudi Arabia and other countries in a cross-sectional survey.

Though understudied, labor flows and the migrant experience in the Gulf have influenced the social, political and economic structure of Egypt. Especially since its failed democratic transition and increasing dissatisfaction with al-Nour, Egypt is becoming an increasingly conducive environment for politicized Salafism and the recruitment of Salafist jihadist groups. The connections between migration and authoritarianism go much deeper than the dominant narrative of migration-democratization and warrant further study.

Ekrem Karakoç is an associate professor of political science at Binghamton University (SUNY).