On the Egyptian Elections

Almost all of the votes in the Egyptian elections have been counted and according to Ahram online, these are the results for the main candidates:

  1. Mohammed Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood candidate) 5,446,460 votes, 24.9 %
  2. Ahmed Shafiq (Mubarak’s last PM5,338,285 votes, 24.5 %
  3. Hamdeen Sabahi (Karama Party, left Nasserist) 4,616,937 votes, 21.1 %
  4. Abdul Moneim Abul Futuh (split from the MB, a ‘moderate’ Islamist) 3,889,195, 17.8 %
  5. Amr Moussa (former Mubarak Foreign Minister) 2,471,559, 11.3 %

I don’t have a figure for Khaled Ali, trade union lawyer and the candidate of the revolutionary left, but his numbers seem to have been predictably small.The turnout was apparently not huge, at 42% , lower than the parliamentary elections. This means a Shafiq vs. Morsi run-off, which the Arabist in common with other commentators sees as a the worst possible outcome because it is the ‘most polarizing outcome possible’. It is indeed a bad outcome, although an intra-felool (regime remnant) contest between Moussa and Shafiq would surely have been even worse. It is also difficult to see how a Sabahi vs. Shafiq run-off would have been less polarising. Analyses of this sort are based on liberal premises: that the revolution happened in order to spur “transition” to bourgeois democracy, that polarisation is both unnecessary and undesirable, and that the most important axis of politics is the division between Islamists and secularists.

These premises, which are shared by almost the entire Euro-American media, seriously misread what elections do, what revolutions are and therefore what is likely to happen in Egypt. Despite the low turnout, many Egyptians surely relished the chance actually to cast a vote that would choose between the candidates on offer. Many also, as I explain below, took the poll as an opportunity to support the most revolutionary candidate with a chance of winning.  However, parliamentary or presidential elections, especially this election, can serve as much to derail as to channel revolutionary processes. They are an example of what Sartre calls a ‘serialised’ action, or a ‘plurality of solitudes’ in the polling booth. This generally produces not an aggregate of prior individual’s prior preferences, but rather a re-iteration of the power of those able to influence the atomised individual through everyday relations, dominance, work and the media – the ruling class, in other words. The revolutionary democracy in evidence in Tahrir during the insurgencies of the past year and a half is quite a different beast: the republican and collective democracy of a ‘fused group’, directly participating in making and implementing decisions. No wonder then that SCAF were actually quite keen on the elections.

There is another reason for the military gerontocrats to have no reason to fear the Presidential election in itself. This is the absence of any constitutional definition of the powers of the President. This allows SCAF the flexibility to negotiate what those powers will be with whoever is elected (and it could be either Morsi or Shafiq), with a reasonably accurate idea of that candidate’s support base. Such an arrangement would differ depending on the outcome of the second round – a vote for Shafiq is a vote for SCAF and a blank cheque, a vote for Morsi would return the MB to horse-trading with SCAF – but SCAF would hope to engineer a non-exit from power that would mirror, perhaps, the situation in Turkey in the early 1970s. SCAF will hope that after the pre-presidential battles around Abbaseya in which the revolutionaries did not attract overwhelming popular support, they will be able to use the Presidential election to put an end to the revolutionary process.

What to make of the results? First of all, the fancied candidates Amr Moussa and Abul Futuh did badly. This may be because once you get a close look at them (as Egyptians did in the televised debate) they’re not up to much. It may be that voters prefer a full-fat felool like Shafiq or a high-tar Ikhwanji such as Morsi to their fuzzier variants. I would expect most of Abul Futuh’s votes to go to Morsi (taking account of the fact that Abul Futuh had Salafi endorsment) and Moussa’s to go to Shafiq. The Shafiq vote seems initially a kind of performative contradiction, since in voting for him one is voting retrospectively to be unable to have that vote. It  represents, I think two things: the incomplete nature of the revolution, and the absence as yet of an alternative social programme and power centre able to reach into rural areas. It may be misleading to describe Shafiq as a remnant: not because he is not a Mubarakite, for he is pur et dur, but because the majority of the dictatorial state remains intact. It suffered significant blows in the removal of Mubarak, the uprising against the State Security of the spring of 2011 and the continuing struggle over the ‘little Mubaraks’ in management positions but it remains un-smashed and SCAF is at its head. Shafiq is part of this machine, and also had access to pre-existing networks of patronage in the Delta villages where he did well. When Shafiq says ‘the revolution is over’ he means the counter-revolution has begun. Shafiq is still hated as a remnant, as this video shows, but there are people who value ‘stability’ and who want to see the smack of firm government return to the torture chambers for those who disrupt it. In a contest between the promise of a return to normal, and no widely-known alternative that sounds better than normal, this kind of politics can prove attractive to those far from the revolutionary centres.

Morsi’s result should be not be a surprise. If anything, it is his low score that upsets expectations. He is a poor candidate, worse than the excluded Khairat Shater, and the Ikhwan have been waiting for this opportunity for years. What wins votes is having an efficient, geographically widespread and well-funded organisation geared towards elections, and access to media. It should be noted however that, unlike Shafiq, it could be possible to vote for Morsi (more so Abul Futuh) and identify with the legitimacy of the revolution. What is noticeable is that the total Islamist share of the vote is not a majority, and certainly not in the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria. This result should give caution to those who believe that the Islamist question is the only important one in Egyptian politics and therefore align themselves either with the Islamists (Abul Futuh’s campaign manager is a former revolutionary socialist) or the state. A common response amongst liberals (by which I mean actual liberals not just non-Islamists) is to imagine that a ‘secular’ state figure such as Shafiq will at least save them from the Islamists: but, while the bigotries of the Ikhwan are not to be underplayed, a vote for Shafiq is a vote for the state that sexually assaults its female (and male, for that matter) citizens, that enforces restrictions on Christians and shoots them when they protest, and that already has ‘article 2’ of its constitution stating that Islam is the religion of the state and Shari”a is the source of its jurisprudence.

Hamdeen Sabahi’s results, which are indeed surprising to those who accept the premises I outlined at the top of this piece, are very encouraging. Sabahi has been around a long time and is respected for his passion, and his left-Nasserist politics seems to have caught the atmosphere of the broader revolutionary milieu who would not vote for Khaled Ali based on the (correct) assessment that he had no chance of winning.  Sabahi has something in common, in a different context with the proto-populism of Oskar Lafontaine or Jean-Luc Melenchon. His main slogan has always been “I am one of you”: his campaign based on a promise to work ‘for all Egyptians and especially… for the poor and the alleviation of the struggle between the classes’. Now, I’d argue that the revolution can only succeed if struggle between the classes is not alleviated but won by the poor and the workers. Nonetheless, what Sabahi’s strong showing says is that there are millions of Egyptians committed to revolutionary goals that go beyond the present neo-liberal boundaries policed by SCAF and accepted -promoted- by the Ikhwan. I would guess that in this group one could add to Sabahi’s vote a fair number of Abul Futuh’s supporters, some of Morsi’s and definitely those of smaller candidates such as Khaled Ali.

The social and political geography of the Sabahi vote also gives grounds for consideration. He won in Cairo and (shockingly for the Islamists who had treated the city as their fiefdom) in Alexandria. He came second in Giza. He also won in the industrial area of Port Said, and in the huge bidonville of Imbaba, one time stronghold of the Islamic Jihad Gama”a Islamiyya. Some of the grumpier commentators are taking Shafiq’s vote to repeat the cliche about the revolution consisting of twitter kids who live in a microcosm, while the rest of Egypt wants to get back to the good old days of being paid $2 a day and being punched in a police station. Sabahi’s vote shows this is not the case: where there has been collective revolutionary activity, and most especially where it involves the poor and workers, votes express a desire to continue and extend the revolution. Perhaps those observers who were suddenly  enthused and then crestfallen by Sabahi’s near-entry to the run-off will now get themselves into organisations that can compete with the felool and the Ikhwan. This will be needed: if Shafiq wins the revolutionary confrontation will return with very uncertain results, while Morsi is likely to disappoint his supporters even more quickly than the Ikhwan MPs. A strong counter-force based on the economic power of the kind of people who voted for Sabahi can win that confrontation: making it real, as Hossam argues, is a hell of a lot easier said than done.

UPDATE: It appears that Sabahi is lodging an appeal on the grounds of election irregularities including ‘a claim by a police officer that the Interior Ministry had illegally assigned 900,000 votes to Shafiq.’

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Posted on May 26, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on On the Egyptian Elections.

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