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Democratic Elections: A (Post-)Colonial Telling

[The front line of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles of Nov. 14-19. Image Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/elhamalawy/] [The front line of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles of Nov. 14-19. Image Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/elhamalawy/]

Seoud Omar, a member of the Suez Canal Authority’s workers union, stood for parliamentary election as an independent candidate in Egypt’s port city of Suez. Just a week before the people of Suez went to vote in the second stage of elections on 14 and 15 December, the numbers assigned to each candidate on the ballot were suddenly changed. Many voters rely on these numbers to identify their preferred candidate in a long list of names on a confusing ballot paper. While Omar’s few election posters spread across town advertised his voter number as sixty-two, the number that appeared on the ballot next to his name was actually fifty-nine. The reason is that some other candidates pulled out of the race late, and as a result, each candidate’s number moved up accordingly.

This incident and many others have shown that while the world proceeded to celebrate Egypt’s “historic elections” and monumental step toward “democracy,” many Egyptians were left confused as to how to vote in rushed, confusing elections littered with violations. The ironies do not end here. Tasked with overseeing the elections is a military apparatus that only a few days prior the start of voting was engaged in beating and murdering unarmed protesters. One day the army crushes the free expression of political dissent, the story goes, the next day it secures people’s “democratic right” to vote.

On the first day of voting on 28 November, many Cairenes turned up at polling stations to find over two hundred candidates to choose from, without any reference to the party to which each candidate belonged, if any. If you had not done your research ahead of time to figure out the party affiliation of each candidate, you just picked a random one, or asked one of the party representatives illegally situated inside the polling station for advice. Elsewhere in downtown Cairo, thousands of filled out and stamped ballots were found discarded in garbage piles. 

Such occurrences, however, are anything but surprising given the long, dark history of electoral violations and mismanagement in Egypt. There is more at stake than just these violations or the extent to which these elections have been free and fair. Permeating the 2011-2012 elections is a much broader and more significant matter that is not unique to Egypt, namely how these elections and the discourse of democracy that they have generated are being used to undermine the struggle for revolutionary change.

***

I had moved to Gaza City just months before parliamentary elections were convened (quite ironically) on 25 January 2006. The situation was in no way identical to present-day Egypt but, in hindsight, some basic resemblances are striking. Fatah, a political party once headed by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, had been in power since the pseudo-governmental structure of the Palestinian Authority (PA) came into existence in 1994 in the aftermath of secret negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in Oslo. The agreement the parties carved out effectively handed Palestinians a governmental structure with no sovereignty. Thus, since 1994 the Palestinian Authority resembled a charity organization funded largely by foreign governments and financial institutions. The Israeli government, on the other hand, used the agreement as an international license to avert responsibility for Palestinians living in the land they occupied.

What Fatah gained through this process was “legitimacy” in the eyes of the international community, having become the so-called official representative of Palestinian people. While obediently working through the institutions for which the Declaration of Principles (commonly known as the Oslo Agreement) provided, Fatah became the recipient of vast international aid and financial support, having become the gatekeeper to the “state” coffers. Throughout Fatah’s reign between 1994 and 2006, this convenient set-up had given the group’s leaders and their associates access to lucrative business opportunities, not to mention the gains that Fatah loyalists scored in the form of government employment and various benefits. All this, however, came at a heavy price, namely the acceptance and legitimization of a stunted political sovereignty. The same institutional framework that Fatah embraced normalized Israeli occupation for an indefinite period of time and legitimized what can be described at best as an incomplete sovereignty. Short-term opportunism—specifically the lure of political power and the taste of financial assets—was enough to turn Fatah from a vehicle for resisting the occupation to a vehicle for legitimizing and collaborating with it.

By 2006, while continuing to tout its revolutionary credentials, Fatah’s complicity in the repressive realities with which Palestinians had to put up largely contributed to its loss of power. Thus, on the eve of group’s electoral defeat in 2006, even large portions of the soldiers serving in the various security organizations of the Fatah-controlled PA voted for The Change and Reform Party, the political arm of Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Nonetheless, some saw Hamas’ victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections as a huge surprise, including the fat cats among Fatah’s elites who found their defeat hard to swallow. They were, however, given an escape by the very same “third” parties that had paved Fatah’s way to power years before. After the international community—led by the George W. Bush administration—praised Palestinians for their model of “democracy,” it subsequently ignored the election results and worked to undermine Palestinian elected leaders through sanctions and support for their rivals among the Fatah opposition. Next, the CIA trained and funded forces within the Fatah security apparatus with a view to staging a coup against Hamas. When these attempts were foiled and defeated, Fatah leaders fled the Gaza Strip, leaving Hamas in charge. Shortly thereafter, PA President Mahmoud Abbas appointed a cabinet based in the West Bank and headed by former World Bank economist Salam Fayyad. Fayyad's party ran in the 2006 elections and won two out of 132 seats. This string of events successfully divided the Occupied Palestinian Territories into two separate cantons—so much for the Palestinian “democracy” that elections supposedly brought about. 

In many ways, secret negotiations toward the formation of a Palestinian Authority in the prelude to Oslo signified the straw that broke the back of the resilient first Intifada’s resistance efforts. The Oslo framework and what followed it locked Palestinians in a journey to fulfill global conventions of statehood through agreements and institutions that benefited some Palestinian leaders, while at the same time rendering the struggle for rights and resistance to violence and oppressive practices illegitimate. Stated simply, Palestinian leaders have entered into a realm in which any attempt to attack the occupying force and contest its injustice either physically or politically became unacceptable, and, for some opportunistic leaders, undesirable. Not only has this statal discourse, along with the promises of democracy and freedom it encompasses, undermined the same movement that played by its deceptive rules, it has also fragmented and weakened Palestinian resistance.

*** 

On the night of 19 November 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flooded public squares—once again—in protest of security forces’ belligerent attacks against a small group of demonstrators who had staged a sit-in in Tahrir Square the previous night. The demonstrators included individuals who sustained injuries as a result of police violence during last winter’s eighteen-day uprising that toppled deposed President Hosni Mubarak. They complained that the government had failed to deliver on its promise to compensate them for their injuries.

As Egyptians once again turned out en masse to demand an end to military rule, security forces, reportedly under the supervision of SCAF leaders, pounded the protesters with beatings and teargas. Over the course of the subsequent five days, Central Security Forces—anti-riot police—used live bullets against protesters in Cairo and Alexandria, killing dozens and leaving nearly four thousand injured.

The momentum of outrage that day evoked the events of 28 January, when hundreds of thousands of unarmed Egyptians broke through the frontlines of the police onslaught and took control of major public squares. That revolutionary moment had come to a lull in mid-February, when former president Mubarak stepped down and a group of military generals assumed power, promising “democracy” and change. Ten months later, the demonstratorsfaith in those self-appointed leaders has been shattered, as revealed by the numbers that took to the streets on 19 November demanding an end to military rule. 

Similar to the events of mid-February, the once uncompromising demand for immediate change—or the end of military rule—came to a lull in the final days of November. After firing thousands of rounds of teargas on demonstrators in the early hours of 24 November, Egyptian security forces finally halted their fire. Officials affirmed that elections would go forward as planned, notwithstanding the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and the politically tense situation that the SCAF-sponsored violence brought about. The SCAF asked Kamal Al-Ganzouri, who served as Mubarak’s Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999, to form a new transitional cabinet. Hours later voting commenced in nine out of twenty-six Egyptian governorates, and promises of democracy and change once again proliferated across the front pages of newspapers and were blurted over censored television channels.

The army generals succeeded in subverting that particular moment of protest. Silence began looming over Tahrir Square on the morning of 28 November, as Cairenes lined the walls of polling stations waiting for their turn to vote in an election that did little to advance popular calls for revolutionary change. 

Similar to the outcome of Palestinian elections five years earlier, Islamists were revealed as the popular alternative to the old political establishment, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the lead, followed by the Salafist Al-Nour, as the two groups together secured close to seventy percent of the seats settled in the first stage. On 6 December, SCAF member General Mukhtar al-Mulla declared that the prospective parliament would not have exclusive power to select members of the constitutional assembly that would draft the country’s next constitution. And again the excuse for limiting the powers of this new parliament was a familiar one, acceptable to many in Washington: fear of the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood rejected these statements, which other SCAF officials eventually retracted. Days earlier, Mamdouh Shahin, another SCAF member, had announced that the new parliament would not be allowed to form the new government.

In Palestine, the mere promise of the semblance of a state had subverted the relentless Intifada that began on 7 December 1987. In Egypt, it was the fleeting possibility of democracy that maimed Egyptians back to their routine of deference to their military rulers. Neither of the two promises came into being.

***

In Egypt the popular Intifada that exploded on 25 January 2011 appears to be undergoing birth pangs as the SCAF continues to employ ”democratic“ elections as a desperate attempt to distort the popular struggle for change and deplete its legitimacy—a strategy that seems poised for failure. Following the start of voting, Egypt’s military rulers have done everything in their power, with the help of their local and international allies, to keep suppressing people’s longstanding demand for change, using a combination of violence and the statal discourse of elections and democracy building. It has not worked. Throughout the multi-stage parliamentary elections, Egyptian workers throughout the country have been going on strike. Their demands add to a choir of determined voices that reject the empty promises of Egypt’s military junta.

On 1 December, a group of five customs officers at the Suez Addabeya seaport refused to let a seven-ton shipment of teargas, originating from the US company Combined Systems, into the country. This brave act brings to light just one angle of the global contours of the popular struggle alive in Egypt today. Over the past year a cacophony of voices of protests has sounded from the streets of Egypt. Demonstrators have voiced outrage over such issues as police brutality, food prices, corruption, dictatorship, labor exploitation, and judicial malfunction. If you look past the sight of elections and competition between opportunistic political parties, something else becomes clear about the struggle at hand. Specifically, revolution in Egypt is not only challenging the country’s authoritarian rulers, but also the very structure of the nation-state as we know it. The customs employees’ action—or their attempt to resist the international partners of Egypt’s military junta—places the security forces’ onslaught against protesters on the streets of Egypt within its global dimensions.

The peculiar incident raises many important questions: Which companies are supplying Egypt’s generals with weapons while fully knowing that they would be (mis)used against their own population? What role do governments play in supporting and guiding private companies that engage in this illicit moneymaking enterprise? What does this incident teach us about the frequent lip service that such governments pay to the virtues of the Western model of democracy, while promoting the export of instruments of repression to the same countries to which they proscribe such things as “freedom” and “elections”? These global dimensions may reveal that the struggle at hand is not only merely a local challenge against the Egyptian statal structure of governance, but a global one directed at a crisis-ridden nation-state.

***

The second stage of parliamentary elections was once again mired in violence against peaceful dissent. In the early morning of 16 December, after the first round of voting in stage two was over and vote tallies were being circulated in local and international media, army soldiers kidnapped one of the protesters who was participating in the occupy cabinet sit-in. Security personnel beat and tortured him inside the same parliamentary building where elected representatives are scheduled to convene. Elections, in other words, provided the generals with a headline that could divert attention away from an effort to crush a spirit of protest. It also gave them an opportunity to advance the convenient narrative that true change and stability will come through the ballot box, and not through demonstrations and sit-ins, which are simply undermining social peace and people’s democratic rights.

The demonstrators responded by throwing stones at the looming Central Security Forces. Army soldiers likewise threw rocks at the demonstrators, eventually from a nine-story cabinet building. The exchange continued uninterrupted for days. On various occasions the military fired live rounds at protesters. As with previous similar confrontations, nearby hospitals were flooded with the injured. The attacks by security forces against unarmed protesters in Qasr Al-Einy Street and Tahrir Square resulted in at least sixteen deaths and 928 injuries.

The cabinet sit-in had begun after the SCAF, under pressure from protesters in Tahrir Square in late November, accepted the resignation of the Essam Sharaf government and appointed a cabinet headed by Kamal Al-Ganzouri, who had served in this same post under Mubarak’s rule. Before the 16 December violence erupted, Ganzouri promised in a televised statement never again to use tear gas or violence on the protesters. As the sit-in continued to block the entrance to the prime minister’s office, the media discussed for days the difficulty that the new cabinet confronted in finding an alternative place to meet. Just as security forces began attacking protesters on 16 December, the new (and old) prime minister appeared on state television stating, ”I said and I am still reiterating that we will never confront any peaceful demonstrations with any kind of violence, even the verbal kind. I am committed to this.”

The election process proceeded as planned, despite the fact that the military establishment overseeing Egypt’s “first democratic elections” was chronically using obscene forms of violence against the same people whose rights it pledged to protect. During and after the ensuing clashes, military leaders had the parliament area sealed off, effectively creating a military zone that walls off the government's bastion of power from the Egyptian public. Meanwhile, voting and ballot counting proceeded.

The year 2011 in Egypt has proven to be an unprecedented year of protest and revolutionary vitality. It is tempting to hope that the struggle for revolutionary change will find a new life in the ongoing electoral process and in the institutions it will generate. Yet it is belief in this hope that is the biggest threat to Egypt’s revolution. The type of limited, hollow “democracy” that the SCAF and its allies want for the country is largely aimed at undermining Egypt’s protest movement after it has proven its potential to make meaningful strides toward the demands that drove millions of Egyptians out to streets on 25 January: bread, freedom, and social justice. I will not attempt to propose an alternative to the facade of democracy that the SCAF seeks to institute. For the time being, the only semblance of a democracy is remaining on the street in defiance of oppression—at least to make our voices heard.

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