Egyptian presidential election: Anti-revolution v counterrevolution

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Should Egyptians side with the anti-revolutionary military old guard or the counterrevolutionary Islamist vanguard when choosing their next president?

Monday 4 June 2012

The counterrevolution is gathering pace in Egypt.

After initial elation at the spectacle of millions of Egyptians queuing patiently, in a country where jumping the queue is a national pastime, to cast their ballot for one of more than a dozen candidates in unprecedented presidential elections in which the winner was not known in advance, a by-now familiar feeling of disillusionment set in when the results of the first round were announced.

In a turn of events that proved surprising to just about everyone, the last two candidates left standing were Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative wing and “Mubarak’s man” Ahmed Shafiq, one-time air force commander, ex-aviation minister, and Mubarak’s unpopular first choice for prime minister when the revolution broke out early last year.

Neither Mursi nor Shafiq were the pundits’ favourites. In fact, both men were hovering low in most polls prior to the elections. The early favourites were the reform-minded, pluralist and relatively liberal former Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, the popular one-time foreign minister who emerged from the revolution relatively unscathed, because of his personal incorruptibility and the distance he took from some of the Mubarak regimes most notorious and abusive years during his decade-long tenure as secretary-general of the Arab League.

Though I, in common with most young revolutionaries, opposed Moussa’s candidacy because of his close association with the former regime, some long-time dissidents have expressed their support for him. One example is Hisham Kassem, the veteran independent publisher and human rights activist. “I want a strong president,” he told me prior to the elections while seated at a dusty desk amid the bare concrete at the Cairo offices of his soon-to-be-launched newspaper which he has optimistically named al-Gumhoriya al-Gadida (The New Republic) to reflect Egypt’s changing reality. “I don’t want Egypt to enter a Latin American scenario of political collapse and a new president every six months.”

While Moussa had the support of “stability-seeking” reformers like Kassem, Aboul Fotouh had the vote of many in the antiestablishment but pragmatic middle ground, who sought a consensus candidate. “Aboul Fotouh genuinely believes in equality,” the prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reflected as a number of shishas or waterpipes bubbled thoughtfully around us.

However, these two men confounded expectations, with Aboul Fotouh ending up fourth and Moussa fifth, with third place going to the late-starting favourite for the secular, revolutionary vote, Hamdeen Sabahi, a reform-minded leftist and diehard Nasserist.

With the race for the presidency now reduced to a contest between a counterrevolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist and an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal general, revolutionaries and pro-revolution Egyptians have been left with an extremely bitter pill to swallow and a stark choice to make at the ballot box: vote for “felloul” (remnants of the old regime) or conservative Islamism.

A heated debate is taking place between secular revolutionaries about which of the two candidates to vote for in order to best preserve the  aims of the revolution, or whether it would be more principled to boycott the second-round vote altogether to show that neither man enjoys a sufficient mandate.

But what brought about this “nightmare scenario”, as it has come to be described in revolutionary circles?

Well, both men appear to have been helped by the fragmentation and disarray of the revolutionaries and the low turnout of just over 40%, which is tiny considering that this election was Egypt’s first truly free presidential race and some had hoped it would mark the birth of the “second republic”. This low turnout was reflective of the paucity of good candidates, the disillusionment felt by pro-revolutionaries that their revolution had been “stolen” or “hijacked”, and disappointment at the revolution’s failure to deliver concrete socio-economic results following high initial expectations.

Ahmed Shafiq, who has the tacit backing of the army and the police, managed to steal votes from the Moussa “stability” camp but also capitalised on the “fear” vote, drawing support from those who harboured Mubarak sympathies and those who are terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover in Egypt, including the country’s vulnerable Christian minority. For his part, Mohamed Mursi seems to have walked away with the conservative Islamic vote, particularly in the more traditional rural areas in the south of the country.

Does the victory of these two contenders who have questionable democratic credentials mean that Egyptians do not prize freedom? There are certainly some Egyptians who seem enamoured of authoritarianism, as reflected by the surprising number of people I met in Cairo who voiced support for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s shadowy and dangerous intelligence chief, as Egypt’s next president, but he was later disqualified from the race.

That said, candidates who represent the vanguard of the Egyptian revolution walked away with around two-fifths of the vote. Furthermore, quite a lot of those who voted for the top two candidates did so not out of some anti-freedom platform but because they have other, more immediate fears and priorities for the transitional phase.

But if Egyptians vote for Mursi to oppose Shafiq as the symbol of the old regime that would mean that the Islamists will win the double whammy of the parliament and presidency. What would be the consequences of such an outcome on the future of Egypt?

As someone who believes wholeheartedly in a new Egypt of full freedom, equality and economic and social justice, I fear what impact this conservative current will have on society. But in order to understand its possible consequences, we need to delve into its causes.

Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity, is partly a response to the onslaught of modernity and the insecurity it has engendered. In Egypt, it is also a backlash against the corruption, nepotism, oppression and failure of the country’s secular regimes, as well as the unequal global order, to deliver prosperity, equality and dignity to ordinary people. Also, in situations of grinding poverty, poor education and stark inequality, people often fall back on the safety cushion of religion.

Moreover, part of the appeal Islamists enjoy is due to the fact that they have always been in opposition, and the few months they have been at the wheel of parliament has already corroded their popularity and turned many former supporters against them, who accuse them of being a religious version of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party. If Islamists fail to deliver visible improvements on crucial bread-and-butter issues, such as employment, health and education, then the electorate is likely to conclude that Islam, or at least Islamism, is not the solution to their woes, and may turn to the secular revolutionaries as an alternative.

But what if these elections turn out to be “one person, one vote, one time”, as Western critics of Islamism claim? “Don’t panic”, is Hisham Kassem’s attitude. “I don’t think the Islamists are powerful enough to change the identity of the state,” he says.

Many Egyptians also believe that the Islamists-secularists fault line is exaggerated and even a distraction. While it certainly does exist, it is not a black-and-white division, with a significant proportion of secularists supporting traditional values and religious intolerance, while many Islamists, particularly younger ones, believing in democracy, religious freedom and individual rights. Also, the ranks of the rightwing and leftwing, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary, the progressive and reactionary are to be found on both sides of the Islamist-secularist border.

“It’s much more comfortable for the two sides to engage in a culture war,” observes Hossam Bahgat. “But the real issue is building a democratic system, and striving for social justice and economic justice. The battle over identity is just polemics.”

 

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 May 2012.

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Revolution: the ‘third way’ in Egypt

 
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By Osama Diab

With little representation in official politics, Egypt’s revolutionary forces must continue to create a political third way on the streets.

Friday 1 June 2012

Following the announcement of the official results of the Egyptian presidential elections on Monday, Tahrir square, the epicentre and the unofficial headquarters of the revolution, drew thousands of protesters who expressed their dissatisfaction that Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, would face each other in the final round. Many felt the outcome was predecided to give voters a choice between bad and worse.

The chants against both the military and the Brotherhood demonstrate that many Egyptians are not happy with the choice they have been left with. After all, the majority of Egyptians voted for candidates other than Morsi and Shafiq.

This regime-Brotherhood dichotomy has a relatively long history in Egypt. The overthrown president Hosni Mubarak mastered playing this card to help him stay in power for almost three decades. He demonised the Brotherhood while giving them some power to qualify them as a tangible threat. The state media machine cast them in the role of Egypt’s political bogeyman while portraying the regime as the stable status quo.

Mubarak played the demon Brotherhood card until the last day of his rule. In his last interview with ABC’s Christiana Amanpour a few days before he was forced to step down, he warned omniously that if he left office the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.

This ornamental bipartisanship benefited both parties and they both have vested interests in maintaining this favourable status quo. This was evident and clear in their statements about the post-election protests against the results. They both described the protesters as pro-Hamdeen Sabahi (the candidate who came in third). Though there were protesters who had voted for Sabahi, I can tell you, as an eyewitness to the demonstration, that the protest had very little to do with the man himself, but casting it in this light gives the impression that the protesters are nothing more than a bunch of sore losers who have no genuine grievances.

Maintaining this regime-Brotherhood dichotomy is harmful. It stagnates Egypt’s political life and hinders progress, while promoting the politics of fear. It also establishes a tradition of tactical voting “against” rather than “for”, with each side trying to convince the voter that they are the lesser evil.

This framework of politics puts very little pressure on the parties to deliver any actual results. In fact, both the regime and the Brotherhood presented no vision for ending the political deadlock and economic meltdown the country is experiencing.

In addition, the majority of Egyptians have expressed their rejection of this tired political formula, through both street politics and the ballot box. The problem is that the revolutionary votes were divided due to the lack of coordination and the lack of political and electoral experience. Despite all this, candidates who clearly represented the revolution won more then 40% of the votes.

Since this massive voting bloc has very little representation in official politics, it is left with no choice but to try to influence decision-making through street politics, lobbying and forming coalition. Eventually, it will evolve into some form of organised political force that can present a third choice and break the regime-Brotherhood dichotomy once and for all. Until this happens, people who are not happy with the choice they have in the run-off should boycott the elections. A very low turnout will embarrass the regime, take away some legitimacy from the next president and put more pressure on him to compromise. It will also encourage a new political force to emerge to win and represent this forsaken voting bloc.

Hope for an egalitarian society lies with pressure the revolution can exert from the grassroots, and its ability to consolidate and institutionalise in the near future. The revolution’s principles of “bread, freedom and social justice” could constitute a viable third way in Egyptian politics and provide a counterbalance to the disastrous and divisive rightwing politics of the Islamists and the military-backed secular regime.

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Egyptian presidential election: A young radical’s voting dilemma

 
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By Karim Medhat Ennarah

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?

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From the Chronikles: My plan for a democratic Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the right president, Egypt could rid itself of nepotism and inequality to become a prosperous and egalitarian society.

Wednesday 23 May 2012 (first published Sunday 17 January 2010)

This article was written a year before the revolution erupted in Egypt and envisioned the then fantastical notion that Mubarak would be convinced to step aside in 2011 and allow free and fair elections to choose his successor. With that in mind, I dreamed of what I would do as president to fix Egypt, and much of my imaginary programme is still relevant: limiting the powers of the presidency, rooting out nepotism and corruption, addressing the issue of sectarian strife, promoting greater economic justice, slashing military spending, abolishing conscription and spending more on education and research. So, I am republishing this now as my modest advice to Egypt’s next president.

While in most countries, even the most democratic, becoming president or prime minister is a far-fetched dream for almost everyone, in Egypt, the prospect exists mostly in the realm of fantasy. In the six or so decades since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has had just four leaders, none of whom were elected – at least not in free and fair elections.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the top seat for the past three decades or so. This means that the majority of Egyptians, given the country’s “youth bulge”, have known no other leader.

Next year, Mubarak’s current term will end and, given his age and health, most Egyptians don’t expect him to seek a sixth term. Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011, fear terrible instability and disruption, and some might even settle for “business as usual” in the form of Mubarak’s son, Gamal – at least for a few years.

Reform-minded Egyptians hope that Mubarak will step aside honourably and take the unprecedented step of calling free and fair elections to find a replacement. The most popular potential candidate at the moment is former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed el-Baradei, despite the fact that he has lived and worked outside Egypt for decades.

el-Baradei’s popularity is not only a sign of his international standing but also indicates the Egyptian regime’s unofficial policy of engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. Personally, I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm, though I doubt that Islamists are ready in the wings to take over. Nevertheless, I cannot help but hold out hope that 2011 will mark the birth of true Egyptian democracy.

Upon taking office, and to avoid the temptations of power that have led so many initially well-meaning Egyptian leaders astray, I would probably begin with strengthening and shoring up Egypt’s institutions, from the parliament to the judiciary, to ensure an effective separation and balance of powers. But top-down reforms can, at best, only play the role of a catalyst, and not bring about lasting change in themselves. In order to harness Egypt’s massive grassroots potential, I would end the culture of fear and intimidation – at least, the state-sponsored side of this – that keeps Egyptians down.

I would strive to remove all the unconstitutional and undemocratic laws, such as those hindering freedom of expression and conscience, and dismantle Egypt’s enormous police and state security apparatus.

In order to counteract and reverse growing religious fundamentalism and communal strife I would dig up the roots, rather than chop violently away at the outgrowth. A fish rots from the head down, so it is important to launch a serious campaign to root out corruption, first from the highest echelons of society.

More generally, it is essential to challenge the widespread practice of wasta – which permeates all levels of society and causes widespread cynicism and disenchantment – by strictly enforcing the rule of law, without making exceptions for the well-connected. This will be no mean feat, given how deeply ingrained the notion is, but if Egypt is to become a true meritocracy it is a crucial battle that must be won.

Then there’s the economy, which is often erroneously viewed as somehow separate from society. Seeking political and social justice is meaningless if their economic counterpart continues to be denied – in fact, rather than more growth, Egypt needs more economic justice. Egypt’s economy needs not only to continue to develop, but to do so sustainably and equitably.

In a country where economic inequality has grown to chronic proportions, the chasm between the have-alls and the have-nots needs desperately to be bridged. This should be done through a fair, effective and enforced progressive taxation system, as well as the reinstatement and further development of the country’s dismantled social safety net and concerted government investment directed at stimulating Egypt’s impoverished rural hinterland and neglected south.

This requires not just internal reform but also a revamping of the global economic system to make it fairer for developing countries. In addition, the strong arm with which the US-led west imposes its hegemony could foil such efforts if my “pinko” reforms are deemed somehow to be antagonist to US interests in the region.

In parallel with promoting economic justice, competitiveness also needs to be stimulated in order to generate the necessary wealth to boost everyone’s well-being. This requires robust and enforceable regulations that level out the economic playing field and weed out the de facto monopolies and cartels that plague the Egyptian economy, as well as reforming the country’s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

One reason why superstition reigns and people hark back to a mythical and glorious past is because they feel they lack a future. To give the coming generations a sense of purpose and to allow current generations to build a better future, I would slash military spending and abolish conscription, then use the released resources to invest heavily in education and scientific research.

Of course, I realise that my vision is but a dream untainted by political realities. Even a well-meaning, democratically elected president would have his or her work cut out simply steering Egypt away from the rocks towards which it is currently heading. The kind of transformation I dream of cannot be implemented by any one leader but will take generations of patient and careful change. But with the right political and civil leadership, Egypt can reinvent itself as a prosperous, modern and egalitarian society.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 17 January 2010.

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