Then there were elections, and the fun started: Egypt’s vote

Beard vs. bullets: the Brotherhood’s Morsi and the army’s Shafiq

There’s no such thing as “freedom.” There are only freedoms of various sorts, and nearly all of them are freedoms to.  Freedom to speak; freedom to be silent. Freedom to put a placard in the window; freedom to refrain. Freedom to worship; freedom to say “There is no god.”  There is also a neglected one, but extremely important: the freedom to be stupid. This is indispensable, basic, if only because the second and most frequent excuse that police, politicians, philosopher kings and priests will come up with to prohibit any act (after the first and only valid one, “you’ll hurt somebody with that”) is: “That’s a really stupid thing to do.”  Power always wants to think for you, and the general way is to brand your own untrammeled thoughts as stupid. But you have a right to be stupid. Cherish that!  The freedom to be stupid is so fundamental to the autonomous self, so intrinsic to our independence, that when practiced by the individual we don’t even have a name for it. When practiced by a group, it’s called “democracy.”

This is a refreshing reflection after the Egyptian elections. The results were certified today, and, from a liberal or leftist intellectual’s perspective, 48.44% of the ballots displayed people being stupid. This is the combined result for the two top votegetters, and while it’s not quite a majority, it was enough to put Mohammed Morsi (the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, or the Muslim Brotherhood) and Ahmed Shafiq (former general, Mubarak’s last prime minister, the candidate of the military and the old regime) into a runoff for President. It’s Armageddon, the Islamists versus the army, the two establishments battling head-to-head, with the values that animated most vocal revolutionaries squeezed out from the middle without a smidgen left behind. Boy, is everybody else pissed.

Midan Tahrir, May 28, from @OccupiedCairo: “This time we’re serious”

There was a demo in Midan Tahrir tonight, thousands of people shouting in fury, mainly at Shafiq’s presence in the runoff, the discredited relic of dictatorship. Me, I’m following all this on Twitter, the stay-at-home revolutionary’s best friend. @JamalalJazeera quotes one protester:  “The generation that ruined us with their silence for 30 years has now ruined us with their votes for Shafiq.”

Meanwhile, across the river in Dokki, somebody attacked and ransacked and set fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters. One report on Twitter suggested that as many as eight of Shafiq’s HQs around the country were attacked at the same time; but I haven’t heard more about that. Is this revolutionaries’ rage, or provocateurs? My friend Liam Stack of the New York Times reports people in the burned building “say they ‘got a warning’ to leave Shafiq campaign HQ an hour before the fire started at 10 pm.” From whom? @Khufo lends a note of caution: “don’t you think it’s common sense since ppl have been calling to march towards the hq this afternoon?”  But there’s something fishy, if only in the Shafiqists’ attempt to pin blame. At first, according to @Sherifkouddous, people on the scene were inclined to curse the Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks. But pretty soon they seemed to get different instructions: Youm TV had a Shafiq spokesman saying Alaa Abd el-Fattah was responsible. Alaa, hero of the Revolution, is the military junta’s favorite bogeyman; they blame him for everything, murders at Maspero, dust storms, 30 Rock being cancelled. The account of his incendiary acts is ridiculous, but in less than an hour it took on the dignity of mention in al-Ahram. The state-run paper proclaimed a little while ago that Egypt’s prosecutor general himself had dispatched a team of aides to investigate the incident, and that

a number of witnesses in their testimony to detectives charged political activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah and his sister [Mona Seif, founder of the No Military Trials campaign and hence particularly unpopular with the generals] with involvement in the attack on the headquarters of the Ahmed Shafiq campaign; witnesses said they saw Alaa and his sister asleep in a car near the office minutes before the storming and burning of the headquarters.

Alaa says: “Thinking of installing a GPS tracker and live update my location publicly. Maybe this would stop the false accusations.”

Here’s film of the fire:

Shafiq has run as the law-and-order candidate, the man to restore security and the halcyon quiet of Mubarak times. The violence, whoever caused it, seems predestined to prove his point. Lauren Bohn, a journalist on the scene, says:  “Shafiq campaigners are reading raiding the HQ … as [handing him] his presidency on a silver platter.”

Even now, Shafiq’s candidacy is under a pall of doubt for a number of reasons. One is that the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament in April passed a law barring any senior Mubarak official from running. Shafiq, senior Mubarak official par excellence, challenged this before the Electoral Commission, which is staffed by Mubarak holdovers; they ruled he could run after all, pending a decision by the Constitutional Court. Rumors today suggested the court will hand down a ruling on June 11, five days before the runoff. Kicking Shafiq off the ballot at the last minute would be regular business in this highly irregular election. Neither of the two apparent finalists was the first choice for their respective sides. The Electoral Commission earlier disqualified the Brotherhood’s favored candidate, Khairat el-Shater, for a previous court conviction. It also booted the military’s number-one flack, Omar Suleiman, because too many of his signatures were forged. (Suleiman was Mubarak’s top spy, chief torturer, and chosen successor; I noted here eight months ago that the junta was keeping him in reserve as a possible Presidential candidate.) The two sides fell back on the uncharismatic Morsi and the dully bureaucratic Shafiq with some resignation. In the process, the Commission also kicked out Hazem Abu Ismail, candidate of the far-right Salafists, because his late mother had acquired an American passport. The era when any Egyptian can grow up to run for President is still not here.

El-Shater, Abu Ismail, and Suleiman: See no evil, hear no evil, and I will attach electric wires to your genitals if you do not tell me everything you know that’s evil right now

There are some signs of irregularities in the first-round voting, though Jimmy Carter found it generally fair. A reformist judge today demanded an explanation for the appearance of 5 million new voters on the registration rolls in the last year. Despite a ban on security personnel voting, an officer has filed a complaint saying that 900,000 were issued IDs to cast ballots for Shafiq. (Wael Eskandar has a rundown on these allegations here.) That’s more than the 700,000 votes that separated Shafiq from the third-place runner up, the Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahi.

But back off a moment. Even if the military illegally manipulated Shafiq’s showing, the fact is that the old reprobate got a lot of votes nonetheless. The three top finalists (Morsi, Shafiq, and the edged-out Sabahi) won close to 70% of the ballots between them in a packed field. Perhaps, while the ashes settle in Cairo, one can consider, in that pundity way, what this means: what are the Lessons of it all.

Money and organization. Morsi and (however doubtfully he used it) Shafiq had it. The Brotherhood, in addition to its alleged funding from Qatar (possibly supplemented by Saudi cash after Riyadh’s favored Salafists were disqualified), has its core constituency among the professional classes; these too help keep it in the black. Both cash and commitment have aided it in building the most formidable grass-roots machine in Egyptian politics. True, its vote fell off substantially since last year’s Parliamentary elections — from  more than 40% to less than 25%, reflecting wide anger at the legislature’s ineptitude. But it still mobilized the votes it had. Shafiq, meanwhile, certainly enjoyed the military’s money behind him, if not those 900,000 ID cards. It’s interesting that he didn’t start taking off in the polls until Obama, after some hestitations, renewed the $1 billion-plus in military aid the US ladles on Cairo; perhaps the prudent junta was holding off until it knew for certain the piggy bank (a haram receptacle, but a hefty one) was full.

Ideological certainty. The two candidates whom pundits and polls had earlier anointed both failed miserably. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the liberal former Brotherhood member who tried to built a rainbow movement stretching from secularists to Salafists, got 17% of the votes. Amr Moussa, charismatic former Foreign Minister and Arab League head, got 11%. Most voters, I would guess, disdained their vagueness — the elisions of coalition politics in Aboul Foutouh’s case, and of slippery sloganeering in Moussa’s. They voted for clarity instead. Sabahi, the Nasserist, ran as an unreconstructed leftist, talking of social and economic justice. Even without much cash on hand, a clear populist message propelled him nearly to the top. And even if  Morsi and Shafiq hedged about exact plans and programs, the Brotherhood and the Mubarakites are so familiar that you’d have to be a fool not to know what you’re getting. After the confusions of a revolutionary year, a lot of people wanted straightforward beliefs.

Sabahi: The nation needs my chest hair

Nostagia and nationalism. The siren singing of the successful candidates had, to an outsider’s ear, something of a retro tonality, like a bad cover of a previous year’s hit. The Nasserites, since the Great Gamal died, have had little appeal but memory: recollections of a day when Egypt was independent of the US, adored by the Arab masses, feared by the Arab kings, and at perpetual war with Israel and others.( It’s to Sabbahi’s credit that he broadened this by talking about present-day economics.) Shafiq, meanwhile, based his campaign on an end to the current crime wave and a return to enforced national unity and omnipresent police. And the Brotherhood, while not exactly nationalist in their blandishments — Islam of course is transnational — invoked a solidarity transcending temporary political divisions, the ummah, irrefragable except for those pesky Copts. If you worry about society’s friability in the face of democratic disagreement, or about a loss of national dignity with the retreat of economy and state, these are the guys for you.

What the left revolutionaries didn’t do. If I’m right about the above, then the votes for Morsi and Shafiq seem not stupid, but the pursuit of a rationality different from the leftist and liberal intellectuals’. But a vote for the unequivocal was made easier by the left revolutionaries’ own equivocations about a program. Beyond overthrowing the dictator and establishing democracy, they never developed one. Even on those two points, of course, much is undone — the junta still rules, civilians suffer in military courts, torture continues; but the negatives amount to a call for dismantling the existing system, not guidelines for what a new one will be, or do. I am reluctant to speak of “failure,” but two aspects seem like failures to me. First, the middle-class revolutionaries never engaged much with the workers or peasants who also manned, and womaned, the revolution. They had enormous trouble, indeed, integrating economic justice into their own demands: over the summer, negotiations on a revolutionary program never got much farther into economics than an anodyne provision on the minimum wage. Second —  growing from the first — they failed to follow their own left principles consistently. Almost all the youth activists had some touch of anarchism, for instance. But they did little work on micropolitics, to build local structures of decision-making and alliance within the larger society, structures that might have given the ecstatic but ephemeral experience of Tahrir some permanence. Still less did they follow their syndicalist ancestors in working with the trade unions (for instance) to imagine different models of self-government. These are missed opportunities.

As a result, most of the young revolutionaries wound up politically homeless. In the first Presidential round, most of their votes probably went to  Sabahi, the secular leftist — deserting Khaled Ali, a human rights activist just barely old enough to run, who incarnated many of their values and had no chance and wound up with .5% of the votes. But before that, many had a weird flirtation with Naguib Sawiris, a fantastically rich mobile-phone entrepreneur who founded the Free Egyptians Party, and was one of the more inept politicians among the many incompetents to whom the Revolution opened public life. A Revolution that marries a billionaire is making a bad match.

But certainly this doesn’t mean the Revolution failed. For better or for worse, the Revolution was always a postmodernish one, limited in its objectives, rejecting the Leninist model of seizing state power. The chance to seize state power was there; on the last day before Mubarak fell, as protesters surrounded the government broadcasting center, they seemed for a moment to be following a script as old as the First International. But they rejected it. Historians will probably debate the wisdom of this for decades, but the fact is: the lack of a positive program was built into the way the revolutionaries behaved. They scrupulously abjured either arrogating government authority to themselves, or replicating it by building a new model. That wasn’t the idea. Their highest goal was to open society up and create the space for democracy, and it was part of their dignity and modesty that they didn’t claim some preempting nsight into what that democracy should do.

And now? The leaderless liberals have launched a “united front,” predictably disunited, to demand that whoever becomes president set up an inclusive constitution-drafting process. Shafiq and Morsi will go ahead and campaign, though Shafiq might be disqualified at the last minute. Each will spend the time trying to scare the hell out of everybody about the other. After that, whoever wins will have a thoroughly divided country on his hands. That might not be a bad thing, give the regressive politics either one would represent: neither exactly deserves carte blanche to govern. And if Shafiq is shucked off the ballot? Does Sabahi enter the runoff with five days to go? Is there a new election? The whole thing has been so bungled so far that nobody can guess.

Issandr el-Amrani calls, basically, for a new Revolution aiming at a new transition:

The question is not really anymore whether there was massive fraud, or only minor violations as the PEC [the Electoral Commission] stated today. Its ruling is not appealable, it has a past record of dubious decisions, and it behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking access to observers to counting rooms. The PEC had no credibility even before the vote was cast for many people who are unhappy with the results.

The real question is to what extent will the political leaders that supposedly represent the protestors will push the delegitimization of the elections, and how the Muslim Brotherhood (which has alleged fraud but not filed any complaints, perhaps afraid to lose its spot on the runoff) will position itself between the protest movement and the state.

The revolutionaries were right that no constitution should be written, and no election held, under the rule of generals who served Hosni Mubarak. They didn’t care about the current interim constitution because it itself has little legitimacy, and the transition has been so mangled as to barely make sense anymore. … The politicians were afraid to alienate the good part of the population that doesn’t want to take that risk of confronting the state head on, as well as jeopardize their own position in the emerging order. I don’t know whether they’ll change their minds now, but one would think the moment is ripe  — even if this leads to no concrete gain and probably much pain, the seeds of delegitimization of the future regime will have been laid. …

[S]omeone needs to rise to the occasion here and reject this electoral process outright (Aboul Fotouh and Khaled Ali have). If you’re going to lose, you might as well drag others down with you — in this case, the PEC, the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], and the (officially) winning candidates. It’s just good politics.

I’m not sure. SCAF needs to be dragged down, but can that be done from the streets anymore? Shafiq won’t do it, but could Morsi? These are things people will be asking. Giving either side command of the state closes off certain possibilities. But it potentially opens a different project: building society, something the revolutionaries (as opposed to the Brotherhood) have neglected so far. Yet that the society is already open enough for people to be, by the revolutionaries’ lights, collectively stupid without fearing the apocalypse — that’s a kind of victory. A country presented with a couple of unacceptably stupid choices is exercising the giddy freedom of idiocy, where other freedoms begin. That’s society, starting to flex itself and act. It’s worked. How much more can the revolutionaries ask?

Zillions of scorched and scattered Shafiq flyers carpeted the ground outside his smoldering headquarters tonight, sodden from the runoff from the fire hoses. Sarah Carr writes, “The wind is making all the Shafiq pictures on the ground fly up in the air like a lovely American Beauty moment felool style.” There’s nothing so creepy it can’t be beautiful from the right angle. Now back to business.

Litter and liberty: from @Sarahcarr

Everything is political

A couple of signs seen round Cairo.

Revolutionary dentistry: “Elections are corrupt: 2005, 2010, and 2011.”

in your teeth, SCAF

Revolutionary laundry: “A civilian Presidential council is what we want, and this elected council should form the government, as any government while SCAF exists will never work.”

my clothes are cleaner than this election

The Republic of Heliopolis

the anti-Salafis

On the last day of the Egyptian revolution proper in February, hours before the announcement that Mubarak was stepping down, some revolutionaries from Midan Tahrir marched on the Presidential palace, located in the far-off, tony Cairo district of Heliopolis. Some Heliopolitans were already in front of the compound trying to protest, and I, who was following this minute-by-minute on Twitter, remember lots of pissy tweets from the hardened dissident arrivals about what bad demonstrators the bourgeoisie made. They didn’t know how to wave a banner; they didn’t know how to chant; they basically milled around waiting for their servants to do it for them. Fortunately the dictator had already decided to leave; otherwise, the neighborhood opposition might in the end have invited him out for tea. As Mao said, a revolution is not a dinner party, not least because you have to serve yourself.

In keeping with US supporters of John Kerry, who after the 2004 disaster proposed joining Canada, liberals in Heliopolis now want to secede from Egypt altogether. ” If you’re not a resident of Republic of Heliopolis, you will need a visa. Residents of Zamalek, Maadi (the posh part of Maadi), Katamiyah and Garden City are exempted.”

Naturally, although it’s not strictly within their borders, they are laying claim to City Stars, Cairo’s biggest shopping mall. (Visit the mall’s website, and check that music.) The Salafis wouldn’t want it, but the Muslim Brotherhood, to whom consumerism is not entirely alien, might put up a fight. The mall could become the Mosul or the Vukovar of Egypt’s civil war.

remember Jesusland?

An apology to Paul Canning, II

we give support to refugees, and we give them something to seek refuge from

Back in February 2011, our readers will remember, the chronically inaccurate episodically accurate blogger Paul Canning — of the episodically biased chronically unopinionated website LGBT Asylum News — published the following false only intermittently true information:

Amongst the crowds protesting the 30 year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarek in Egypt are many lesbians and gay men. …  Yesterday, one of them, the well-known blogger and activist SandMonkey (the website was taken down by repeated attacks but is now back up) who is gay was arrested, beaten up and later freed.

Most of that is true! We apologize in advance for having to point out that some of it was not. Specifically, the phrase “who is gay” attached to Sandmonkey was not true. Sandmonkey, a dissident blogger known throughout the region, was and is not gay. It’s impossible to say what led the careless occasionally cautious Canning to think he was; but Sandmonkey took offense at those three words, coming as they did in the middle of a revolution where a brutal regime was looking for any reason to jail and discredit opponents. He wrote to the arrogant modest-on-alternate-days Canning:

Dear Paul/Editor of this sight,

You published an article claiming I am gay. While a supporter of gay rights, I am not gay. I have no idea where u got this info, and its totally unverified. Please retract and remove the article, since you must be very well aware what happens to people suspected of being gay in Egypt. You are putting my life in danger.

The editor of San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, which carries Paul’s ill-researched carefully spelled column, wrote back:

We have deleted @sandmonkey from the story without consulting with Mr. Canning, who is the author of the story. SDGLN did not originate this story, which came from LGBT Asylum News in the U.K.

That must have infuriated the temperamental unevenly evenhanded Canning, who always likes to be consulted. It was particularly exasperating in that, even if one counts only the 43 words of the passage we cited (more if we hadn’t inserted that discriminatory ellipsis!) rather than the 800+ words of the whole piece, not more than three were in fact lies less true than they could have been. That means that the passage was, as an absolute maximum, only 6.9767% inaccurate. If you take the falsehoods near-misses at accuracy as a percentage of the whole column, the proportion falls to less than four-tenths of one percent, a completely nugatory figure.  It takes real cheek for Sandmonkey to write to the blinkered presbyscopically observant Canning that “You are putting my life in danger!”  At most only one part in thirteen of his life was danger, and more likely it was less than one-two hundredth. If Voldemort could live with large parts of his soul destroyed, why can’t an Egyptian blogger? The scope of mathematical ignorance is astounding. Obviously, few Egyptians can count. Sandmonkey should learn statistics, and the entire country should be handed back to Lord Cromer and the British to revamp its education system. (A tip to LGBT Asylum News: Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, Britain’s proconsul in Cairo from 1883 to 1907, is alive and well and, with his boyfriend Norman Tebbit, working as a cage dancer Saturdays at Heaven.  He’s available. If you start a campaign now to have the British occupation reinstated, NATO might be able to start bombing by Christmas.)

I take note of this because I learned on arriving in Egypt that Sandmonkey — under his real name, Mahmoud Salem — is running for the lower house of Parliament in today’s elections. His campaign blog and program (mostly in Arabic) are here. (And he’s still tweeting at @Sandmonkey.) He’s a secularist, an environmentalist, a progressive — just the kind of candidate Paul Canning ought to like; except I suspect Paul Canning doesn’t like him anymore.

There’s still a lot that LGBT Asylum news can do, though.  They could out the heterosexual alleged, although to date unproven, homosexual Mahmoud Salem again!  There are still at least twelve hours before the polls close, and people in Heliopolis, where’s he’s running, wake late. Canning’s little-noticed sporadically influential blog deserves the chance to intervene in a world-historical occasion. Alternatively, Canning can out other progressive Egyptians. Dissidents, feminists, and human rights activists here are regularly attacked for supposed sexual perversion; these aspersions sometimes fall flat, and evidence from abroad is needed; it seems unreasonable that the pleasures of outing should be alienated from the heroic activists like Peter Tatchell who originated the tactic, and handed over to Islamist riffraff and demoted Mubarakite bureaucrats who are all too hamhanded in their exposures. Let the task of invading privacy be given back to those who do it best!  Only those who had a closet can appreciate what it means to be torn forcibly out of one — particularly out of one that never existed at all.

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

Tunisian promise(s)

Rachid Ghannouchi: nothing up my sleeve

Al-Nahda (also known as Ennahda), the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of the vote and a leading role in government in last month’s free elections, promises that it will not introduce shari’a or change the secular character of the constitution:

“We are against trying to impose a particular way of life,” Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, 70, a lifelong Islamist activist jailed and exiled under previous regimes, told Reuters. …

All parties agreed to keep the first article of the current constitution which says Tunisia’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. “This is just a description of reality,” Ghannouchi said. “It doesn’t have any legal implications. There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country” …

Samir Ben Amor, a leader of the secularist Congress for the Republic party due to join a coalition with Ennahda and another non-religious party, agreed there was no dispute about maintaining the brief reference to Islam in the first article.

He said there was wide agreement among political parties to strengthen democracy in the constitution by referring to international human rights conventions. “We want a liberal regime,” he said.

Similarly, Al-Nahda promises it will not introduce laws new laws to regulate personal behavior:

“There shouldn’t be any law to try to make people more religious,” said Ghannouchi, whose party has pledged to continue to allow alcohol and Western dress here and pursue economic policies favouring tourism, foreign investment and employment.

The Islamist leader said he interprets sharia, the ill-defined and often confusing complex of Islamic teachings and laws, as a set of moral values for individuals and societies rather than a strict code to be applied to a country’s legal system.

Coalition partners committed to preserving Tunisia’s progressive laws on women’s rights and the family, without including those provisions in the Constitution:

Although all parties agreed to defend Tunisian women’s rights, some of the most advanced in the Arab world, Ben Amor said they could not agree to some feminists’ demands to have the country’s liberal Personal Status Code written into the constitution. “No constitution in the world has that,” he explained. These rights would be protected through legislation, he added.

About a third of the representatives in the newly elected assembly will be women — more than anywhere else in the Arab world, and twice the percentage in the US Congress.

At the same time,

Observers of events in Tunis have reported that radical factions have harassed women to dress more traditionally.  About 500 women gathered in the capital to protest these developments, and were granted a meeting with Prime Minster Beji Caid Essebi to raise their demands.

The campaign created the conditions for aggressive and intimidating public shows of zealotry. Anecdotally, I’ve heard two stories of lesbians and gay men being harassed on the streets or in taxis during and after the election.   In an alarming incident two weeks before the poll, the offices of a TV station that showed Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis – about religious oppression of women in Iran — were attacked and defaced by a crowd of Islamist men and women, some armed.

Nonetheless, there’s no reason now to doubt the apparent broad support in Tunisia for preserving the frame of the secular state, or to suppose that it will change in coming years. I tend to agree with Marwan Muasher, who wrote last week in the New York Times that

The best way to deal with Islamist parties … is to include them in government and hold them accountable. …  Ennahda understands that it can’t ignore the secular part of the electorate. If the party wants to be as successful in Tunisia’s next election after a new constitution has been written, it knows it needs to present moderate views.

Over the next few years, other parties will have a chance to develop in Tunisia and Islamists are likely to get a lower percentage of the vote next time around. … While they may be part of leading coalitions in various countries, they are unlikely to gain power outright in any country.

How to undermine an election

Image-conscious

Issandr el Amrani, after a visit to Tunisia, offers thoughts on how the Egyptian junta’s –and Egyptian politicians’ — handling of the transition has been so much worse:

Over time [in Tunisia], after revolutionary forces exercised concerted pressure, things stabilized: more acceptable ministers were appointed, a transition roadmap was agreed upon, and major political forces forged a consensus. At the same time, institutions of the state — old and new — maintained order and, most notably, prepared the ground for the election administratively and politically. This included months of preparations and training for election officials and putting together a remarkable get-out-the-vote campaign with the help of international election specialists…. In comparison, the way the Egyptian elections have been handled is a disaster. The authorities repeatedly ignored the desire of the vast majority of political forces for a fully proportional, list-based system. They finally offered an agreement on a system that was two-thirds list-based and one-third single-winner-based, only two months before the poll, which was only reluctantly accepted by parties. The final delimitation of districts was still uncertain as candidate registration opened, making the parties’ electoral planning difficult, to say the least.

Moreover, the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] has continued the Mubarak-era policy of opposing foreign monitoring missions, despite this being a widespread practice around the world. In Tunisia, thousands of international monitors did not undermine national sovereignty; they added to the credibility of a well-run process. The concession made in Egypt to the Carter Center and other missions to allow “observers” rather than “monitors” is simply not good enough; it is only by beginning their work long before the actual poll is held and having unfettered access to the organizing agencies and every step of the voting process that monitoring agencies can truly certify the legitimacy of an election. It does not help that the international community currently seems to be placing more emphasis on the elections happening then on them being credible.

Finally, the general atmosphere as the election approaches has not been one of confidence and optimism. The SCAF, through bad decisions and indecision, as well incidents involving the military, such the events of 9 October at Maspero, has been a terrible manager of Egypt’s transition. Not only has the Emergency Law been maintained on dubious grounds (do you really need extraordinary legislation to be able to prosecute looters and carjackers?) but military trials have increased exponentially, while abuses by military police remain uninvestigated. A crackdown on freedom of speech is ongoing, both against mainstream media and individual activists. On the political front, the SCAF has undermined the cabinet’s independence and authority and chosen to approach political forces in a haphazard, divide-and-rule style. …

No wonder many Egyptians are now so depressed. Seeing Tunisia’s success will only add to this glum feeling. It’s not clear that a reset button can be pressed, as desirable as this may be. The SCAF is not about to abandon power, or even appoint a more independent government. Political forces are invested in the coming elections and the clout they think they will obtain through them, even though the parliament will, in fact, have no executive power and the country will continue to be ruled by the army.

Tunisia votes

Into the box

Tunisia held elections Sunday — the first of the Arab Spring, now turning to a chillier fall. Al-Nahda, the moderate Islamist party, appears to have won: they claim over a third of the vote as the count continues.

According to the New York Times, they

won at least 30 percent of the votes cast on Sunday, and party officials told a news conference the party had come out ahead in nearly every voting district. Ali Laredi, a top official of the party, said it expected to receive possibly more than 50 percent when the final results are tallied. Calling his party “the most modernist” Islamic political movement in the Arab world — meaning the most committed to principles of democracy and pluralism — Mr. Laredi predicted that it would now “lead the way” for others around the region.

Ettakol, a leftist party, is running at about a fifth of the vote, but is likely to join in a coalition. Khalil Zaouia, the party’s number two, told Al-Jazeera:

“Al-Nahda is certainly the majority, but there are two other democratic entities, Ettakatol and the CPR [Congress Party for the Republic, another left faction], who were weak at the start but now find themselves in the position to contribute to political life and usher a rational modernity in this Arab-Muslim country.”

The Times suggests that Al-Nahda is negotiating with the full spectrum of liberal parties for inclusion in a coaltion. But the election’s real success , surely, is that actors associated with the old regime were decisively rejected.

“Rational modernity” is a very Tunisian phrase. The nature both of national modernity — what it means for Tunisia’s state and society to be modern — and of political reason itself have been subterranean subjects of debate since the Revolution.  Secularists insistently demand: can an Islamist party really be a rational political actor in a country where authoritarian secularism has defined the national identity? Al-Nadha seems publicly unfazed by the question. It maintains it can. Nouri Gana of Jadaliyya, in an incisive if tendentious report on the election’s stakes a few days back, writes:

Perhaps the trouble with the electoral campaign in the end is that it has allowed questions of cultural identity, religion and laïcité to override other important and thorny issues that have to do with the economy, unemployment, justice and political reconciliation, etc. On the one hand, Islamists have focused very much on their past histories of struggle and have insisted on their progressive civic agenda as well as on their preference for parliamentary democracy. On the other, pseudo-secularists have been fixated on the critique of Ennahda [al-Nahda], all the while remaining reticent about or oblivious to the ideological underpinning of laïcité. By presenting their ideology as a form of critique, Tunisian pseudo-secularists have steadily, even dogmatically, constructed themselves beyond critique. A critique of Tunisian laïcité, however, is never more to be desired than at a time when its complicity with the old regime of Ben Ali and French cultural imperialism has become an everyday Tunisian reality. Tunisians who will go to the polls this Sunday cannot be expected to deliver such a critique—they will deliver their long overdue judgment.