Should a young radical seize his last chance to vote for a president or is the true struggle for radical change in Egypt on the streets?
Thursday 24 May 2012
There are two reasons I didn’t vote yesterday. One is that polling extends over two days and I’m a natural procrastinator. The second is that I’m not sure if I will vote or not and I have put off this decision until the last minute. I do not have any particular moral qualms about voting in an election that many perceive is undermined by the very fact that it is being held under the administration and oversight of the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – electoral mechanisms within established constitutional democracies are, for me, already a significant moral compromise.
A perfect electoral process is not the perfect culmination of revolution anyway and it is definitely not the best example of self-governance. Since I do not really believe in it, my participation is not contingent on whether it is perfect or compromised. I have voted before, the first time was in the parliamentary elections in 2010, although back then it was a completely different farce. I considered my ballot an act of petty resistance, for some reason, and voted to make the task of rigging slightly more annoying. I knew my vote wouldn’t count anyway (it didn’t at all, the ruling NDP decided to go for blatant rather than moderate rigging). Back then things were also pretty black and white, and there were limited channels for political expression.
Now the situation has been reversed, and the only way the regime can save itself is through democratic politics. Voting is not just symbolic anymore. It can actually mean something, and what the military junta wants it to mean is the establishment of the rule of legitimate political institutions which would in turn — or so they think — bring an end to the incredibly fluid and chaotic political landscape that has existed over the past 18months.
This is what concerns me more than the possibility of rigging. Although there is more than one way for the ruling military junta and the state bureaucratic machine — which sometimes seems like it has taken on a life of its own and is making its own decisions — to interfere with the voting process, the chance that such interference will alter the results of the elections significantly or even marginally is, in my point of view, doubtful. Sure, some dead people will still cast their ballots, and some government institutions will forcibly mobilise their workers to vote for specific candidates, but the possibility of rigging will at best be a secondary factor in determining the outcome.
The election process is tightly controlled and widely observed, participation is relatively high, and generally speaking I do not buy into the myth that the military is actually fully in control of everything, or that the outcome whatever it may be will perfectly suit them. Despite the impression one might get from the images of the army’s armoured personnel carriers running protesters over in the heart of the city, this is a much weaker police state than it used to be, and significantly more disorganised and dysfunctional. The transitional period has been characterised by sheer survivalist brutality. The parliament might pass a law (it just did, in the preliminary voting round) which increases penalties against property crime — but people will still commit these crimes on a daily basis. The crime, in this case, being re-appropriating land that is owned by the state and is not being used or has been allocated to private sector investment projects.
The state is trying to restore its ability to look fearsome, in a desperate attempt to stop the rapid erosion of its authority. SCAF and its cronies still obviously control most of the country’s economy, but their methods of enforcing their control on the streets are becoming less and less effective every day.
This corrosion in their effectiveness and authority has led the laws and their enforcing agencies to become more brutal, diminishing their legitimacy further. A democratically elected president and parliament that are still controllable to some extent is thus the regime’s last ditch effort to restore some sort of respect to the state apparatus.
I also voted in the 2011 parliamentary elections, but then I did have moral qualms, and I was extremely emotional. We had just emerged from a week of violent confrontations with the army and the police, that forced the army to reconsider its plan for a slow transition stretched over three years that keeps everything intact. One particular image, of the body of one of our martyrs being dragged by a soldier and then dumped into an impromptu garbage dump on the corner of Tahrir Street shortly after it was temporarily taken over by the military, was still fresh in my mind (and I look at it every once in a while to keep the memory fresh). I thought it would be very cynical to vote in a supposedly democratic election just a few days after this incident, and that maybe it was time to turn the tables and accept nothing of this faux political transition. Ultimately, I controlled my rage and decided at the last minute — to be precise five minutes before polling stations were about to close — to vote anyway. I have partly regretted my decision.
I will never get over this issue, that inner struggle between voting and not voting. I don’t call it boycotting because my problem is a fundamental problem with electoral politics and with social democracy. My problem is that I do actually believe that Egypt needs conflict at the moment, and that a conservative democracy — at best some distorted, rhetorical version of a social democracy, if one can be so ambitious — is just a way of harmonising a conflict of interest that is very real.
Different shades of conservative, representative democracy are still able to sustain their dominance, despite several historical blows. And the question of whether to tactically take part in it or whether, by doing so, we’re missing out on other opportunities of fundamentally changing the system (not to speak about overthrowing it), of making it more radical and more participatory and more just — is a question we will never be able to answer. But what I do know, at the very least, is that a complete overhaul of the social and economic order in Egypt is not something any of the different political forces are interested in achieving.
It suddenly became clear to me, after the revolution took off, that Egyptian apathy towards electoral politics does not stem from ignorance or passiveness. It is actually an active political stance because none of the political alternatives will deliver the needed structural change. There is no immediate solution to this conundrum.
We will go through this transition anyway, whether we like it or not. The radicalisation of politics at the grassroots level is also happening anyway, whether politicians like it or not, and it will not be curtailed by whatever is taking place in the upper echelons of politics. The state will be able to exercise varying degrees of control on the political centre. It will deploy the army in heavy numbers in the port cities, industrial towns and in the countryside to crack down on the exploding number of labour strikes, blockaded streets and railways and government buildings coming under assault, the semi-daily affair of confrontations between local communities and the police over land issues or fuel shortages.
This is where the politics of livelihood dominates and where the state is becoming the weakest player. This is a victory that is hard won and that is much more promising than the establishment of a liberal Western-style democracy with all its inherent limitations. Our active participation in top-level politics level may make it more conducive to this state of fragmented, localised revolution, or it may not. I cannot tell.
If I take part in this electoral battle, it will be with a completely different objective than electing a candidate who represents me. This electoral contest is actually an attempt to reset politics in Egypt (bringing it to a “normal condition”, if I may borrow from computing terminology). We don’t actually have a real political landscape — left-wing and right-wing politics in Egypt today are nothing more than masturbatory exercises in newspapers and academic journals. We are still bogged down in the Islamists versus secularists politics (or rather, non-Islamists, to be precise), and in a very superficial manner — there is very little debate about actual rights.
My fluctuating interest in this electoral contest stems from the fact that it may have the ability to establish a system where issues of social and economic justice, of rights and services, may become a subject of interest to politicians. For that reason, I may vote for someone who has a chance of winning, a rather pragmatic choice, and who is likely to move us past the religious versus non-religious dichotomy. I do not expect him to deliver — I expect him to be busy fighting battles over executive power on several fronts, and I genuinely believe that the current elections will not change anything on the ground. But at least bringing such discussions into the realm of institutional politics can play a complementary role to the battle for rights which continues to be fought by the grassroots. The government will continue to be my arch-enemy, but an enemy with different ambitions from the previous enemy and whom I can engage in a different manner.
I believe that, regionally and globally, we’re living through one of those moments in history where the possibility of radical, revolutionary change — for something so much more than just changing governments and shuffling politicians — is high, and I also believe it’s going to be a long and drawn-out struggle.
For me, the burning question is: can I take part in an electoral process that, deep inside, I have little respect for and that supports state institutions that I will be working hard to cut down to size? Can I both participate in the process and oppose its outcome? Or are they inevitably contradictory courses?