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

One thought on “Then there were elections, and the fun started: Egypt’s vote

  1. Pingback: Razan Ghazzawi receives award; Egyptian women attacked in Tahrir Square | a paper bird

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