From Egypt: Blindness and balloting

I got off the plane in Cairo late Saturday night, and the second person I spoke to was my friend Nada, who came to pick me up.   She told me how she was arrested on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Midan Tahrir, last Sunday, November 20. Central Security forces held her in detention for just over eighteen hours; 30 officers joined in torturing her, including with electroshock. I’ll be doing a fuller interview with her on Tuesday. For Arabic readers, her story, as taken down by the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, is here.

Nada's right arm after torture: @Nadeem Center

Monday, November 28, is the first round of parliamentary elections organized by the military regime. The junta has announced they will go forward. despite protesters’ insistence that a civilian government conduct them; despite the puppet cabinet’s resignation last week; and despite a call from the Supreme Electoral Commission (every government body in Egypt is called “Supreme” that possibly can be) to postpone them.  Google (one of whose local executives, Wael Ghonim, became the face of the January revolution) has greeted the occasion with an encouraging doodle:

These elections are brought to you, apparently, by the letter “e.” For what? Euphoria? Elation? Endlessness? Whatever it stands for, it’s not “easy.”

The voting system the military set up is designed to mystify. Three stages of balloting will happen before mid-January, each covering nine governorates: actually, six stages, since each will be followed a week later by a run-off. Two-thirds of the seats will be filled by proportional representation, with winners chosen from party lists; for the rest, you vote for individual “independent” candidates (they may, of course, have party affiliations, but don’t run under them). Each voter must choose one party list and two independent candidates; ballots with fewer marks are invalid.  The individual candidates are classified as “professionals” or “workers-farmers”  – although anyone can vote for either — a bizarre practice dating to the Nasser regime.

Confused? If you’re Egyptian, you’re meant to be. 8,627 individual candidates are running for 266 seats in both houses of Parliament.  590 separate parties compete for 332 seats in the lower house. I recall monitoring elections in Romania in 1992, with a welter of parties blotching the ballot, each represented by its own symbol — one rose, two roses, a tractor wheel, a plow … An illiterate woman approached me at the polling place weeping: “I see the pictures,” she said, “but what am I supposed to do?”

I'm the cool candidate: from @azelhakim on Twitter

For some candidates, commodities suggest success. This one’s’s horcrux is an air conditioner; and Ben Wedeman (@bencnn) reports one whose symbol is a blender.

The big debate today is whether one should participate at all. Sceptics include the distinguished human rights activist, my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla; you can hear her here (in Arabic) arguing that elections overseen by murderous generals lack all legitimacy, and that a powerless Parliament unable to act against the junta only complicates Egypt’s politics, when clarity and real democracy are needed. @Nellyali reminds everyone how the army treats dissent: “12,000 Egyptians will not be voting tomorrow. They’re on military trials.”

It’s hard not to disagree with political scientist Andrew Reynold’s analysis in the New York Times last week: In the individual-constituency voting,

name recognition gives established power brokers — local strongmen who held sway before the revolution — the upper hand. Even if most of the elected candidates are not high-ranking apparatchiks of the old regime — or “remnants,” as Egyptians call them — many are likely to have been cogs in the corrupt machine that ruled Egypt for decades.

And the list-voting system favors parties with tested organizations — mainly the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing — and may “marginalize new progressive, secular and liberal groups that lack grass-roots networks across the country.”

There are plenty of reports of corruption. Photos circulate on Twitter of what purport to be boxes of unmarked, or pre-marked, ballots left suspiciously on streetcorners and other places.  The voter lists are chaotic, and many people don’t know where their ballot station is.   One Egyptian (@TheMiinz) tweeted, “A friend entered his deceased grandpa’s ID number and his name is among the vote[r]s.”

By contrast, @Dima_Khatib writes, “Use every thing at hand to fight dictatorship, including ballot boxes when they are there!” Blogger and activist Amr el Beleidy makes the case for voting:

What we have seen during the last 10 months is that things change every day. Each actor wants their own self interest, and they’re playing the game to get as much of it as possible. SCAF [the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] wants to retain as much power to protect its members and keep as much of the status quo as possible, the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] want as much political control as possible, the liberals want… and so on. .. There is nothing that’s set in stone. And once parliament is formed there is no saying what its powers will be and what it will do, although this will be largely affected by its make-up.

Tomorrow you have a chance to change the future by helping decide what the make up of this new player will be. And this will change the whole game afterwards. What I can tell you is that the more people you are in favour of get into parliament, the more likely things will go your way. So go out there and vote for the people you want.

After parliament is set, the game continues, and we’ll have to use all other tools of political leverage, like protest, sit-ins, the media, etc.. to move the country towards the path we see best fit. The elections are but a small part of the chess board, and we shouldn’t leave it for others to use it against us.

I spent this evening with a couple of friends arguing out the options, and I still have no opinion. What do you do when an authoritarian regime offers a dribble of democracy? Reject it as the polluted fake it is, or take it and try to turn the taps for more?  If the elections proceed without truly massive evidence of fraud, and particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood (now the junta’s best friends) win, the generals will claim vindication. It will be that much more difficult for democratic activists to contest the voting’s legitimacy, but it may be that much more necessary as the army cements control. Egypt is going blind into these elections, with most voters sure neither of what their choices mean, of what the regime is actually offering, or of what kind of future is possible or likely.

The one certain thing is that, however the results tally, the generals will meet dissent with brutality. Already on Sunday, Field Marshal Tantawi, the military ruler, proclaimed: ”We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections.”

Ahmed Harara before losing his left eye

Where Wael Ghonim, the clean-cut, earnest, middle-class Google professional, became the symbol of the January revolution, the activist icon of these clouded days is Ahmad Harara. Harara lost his right eye to security forces’ fire ten months ago. On November 19, he returned to Tahrir to protest: police shot out his other one. “I would rather be blind, but live with dignity and with my head held up high,” he was quoted as saying. Graffiti of him multiplies round Cairo. A new analysis by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights suggests that this time round, “security forces deliberately fired birdshot pellets and rubber bullets in the direction of demonstrators’ bodies. This use of force was intended to injure demonstrators rather than to disperse them.” The military ordered its enforcers to aim for the eyes:

Kasr el-Aini hospital alone received 60 cases of eye injuries between the 19th November and the morning of the 27th November … eye injuries varied between burst corneas, burst eye sockets and foreign bodies in different parts of the eye.

The generals want a docile or, failing that, disabled public. Protesters in Tahrir, who already knew this, yesterday hoisted a banner over Mohamed Mahmoud Street, scene of the worst violence, renaming it: “The Street of Freedom Eyes.”

"Street of Freedom Eyes": from @mmbilal on Twitter