The resurgence of mass demonstrations in Egypt, in Tahrir Square and beyond, has raised many question marks in the minds of outside observers about what has often been described as “Egypt’s democratic transition.” Many question how Egypt will be able to advance its so-called journey toward democracy when the persistence of demonstrations and extended sit-ins seems to be “stifling” Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections scheduled to commence today and last for three months. This perception happens to coincide with the SCAF-sponsored narrative that these demonstrations are simply a conflict between Tahrirists—who do not want the elections to happen because of their limited electoral fortunes—and the “elections now” camp led by the SCAF—along with political parties that are itching to try their luck at the ballot boxes. Demonstrators in Tahrir, the story goes, are standing in between Egyptians and their freedom to decide their own fate through free and fair elections, as well as their ability to build democratic institutions. Many mainstream international media outlets have adopted one variation of this narrative or another: basically boiling the issue at hand down to “Egypt is in crisis and its elections are at risk.”
This perspective is problematically limited for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it assumes that demonstrators who sought to peacefully stage a sit-in in Tahrir have caused the recent violence, rather than the SCAF-sponsored security personnel who have turned the Square into a battlefield so as to clear the area by force. But beyond responsibility for instigating this “crisis,” the “Square versus the elections” narrative misses the site of the battle for transformative change in Egypt, and uncritically takes for granted the notion that elections will necessarily steer the country toward a political system that is more inclusive, competitive, and responsive to the demands of the January 25 Revolution.
To understand the significance of the upcoming vote and its relationship to the ongoing events in Tahrir and beyond, it is important to bear in mind that the January 25 Revolution emerged not only as a revolt against the rule of Hosni Mubarak. It was also an unequivocal rejection of elite-dominated “establishment politics” and all what it encompassed, both the former ruling party and the self-professed opposition parties and groups. During the eighteen-day uprising that ultimately toppled Mubarak, the former president reshuffled the cabinet, pledged not to contest the presidency or present his son as a possible candidate, vowed to advance far-reaching constitutional reform, and opened dialogue with opposition leaders. The demonstrations, however, continued as the protest movements that participated in the uprising rejected all these concessions and stood by its one unified demand: irhal (“go away”).
At the time, their rejection did not only reflect a lack of trust in Mubarak and his associates, but also a lack of faith in the ability of elite opposition leaders to use these proposed reforms to advance the type of transformative change for which people were calling. For many activists, one of the sobering lessons of the past few decades is the extent to which elite opposition politics in Egypt are driven by a very different logic from that of democratic reform advocates. Time and again, formal opposition leaders have demonstrated that they are ready to sell reform agendas—or any cause for that matter—in return for limited political gains like a few seats in parliament or a political party license. Moreover, some of these leaders did their fair share in helping Mubarak’s regime repress political dissent inside their own parties and, in some cases, in other sectors of public life. All this has reinforced the perception that the elite-dominated formal politics—party life, national legislatures, and elections—offered an ineffective vehicle for advancing far-reaching reform agendas.
This conclusion partly contributed to the emergence of a new sector of opposition politics in the early part of the last decade, namely protest movements that were organized around non-hierarchical structures that left party life and elections for the co-opted, opportunist elites and instead used contentious political tactics like demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins to advance their political goals. It was in that sector of opposition politics that the initial thrust for the 25 January protests was conceived, thereby paving the way to the mass uprising that prompted Mubarak’s ouster. These movements pulled the rug from under the NDP, the traditional opposition, and analysts who were vetting elections and formal Egyptian politics for signs of democratic change. They helped bring about “the return of politics” to Egypt, to borrow the words of Dina Shehata. The emergence of these movements by no means determined the demise of Mubarak’s regime. Many of them were not initially poised to challenge the underlying political order and it was only after surmounting some tough obstacles that pockets of serious opposition began developing within this sector. The rise of the phenomenon of organized protest movements ultimately oriented Egyptian politics toward a new political field that was less open to regime manipulation than elite-dominated formal politics.
This is all to say that the contemporary wave of contentious politics in Egypt was originally conceived in tension with formal political life. It was therefore unsurprising that the “elders” among traditional opposition elite played only a minor role in calling the shots during last winter’s eighteen-day uprising. Nor is it shocking that the same “elders” find themselves today once again marginalized and helpless in the midst of unrest and anger in Tahrir and beyond. In fact, the miracle of 2011 Tahrir Square is not only in that it overcame Mubarak and his associates and forced them to bow down in humiliation, but also in that it tamed unruly opposition leaders compelling them to follow and uphold the will of the Square. This, after years those very same opposition leaders spent sidelining reform agendas for the sake of underhanded dealings with the regime.
Mubarak’s ouster and the military’s ascendance to power marked the beginning of a host of new conflicts once again featuring this tension between elite-driven politics and contentious activism that channels and builds on popular pressure. At the heart of these confrontations is a permeating battle between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Tahrir Square over the history of the January 25 Revolution—arguably the same battle that we are observing in public squares all over Egypt today.
The SCAF, on the one hand, has worked hard on advancing the narrative that the Revolution has already succeeded and would have failed if it were not for the army’s decision to take the side of the people against Mubarak. This narratives further asserts that the time has come for protest movements to demobilize in order to help bring back some normalcy to political and economic life, and to start advancing their objectives through “elite politics”—political parties, electoral processes, constitution-writers, national legislatures. The story goes: Mubarak is gone, the political field is wide open, and, therefore, organized formal politics—and not the Square—is the appropriate site to air your grievances and advance your objectives.
Many activists and movements have rejected this narrative, and countered that the Revolution remained incomplete and very much under attack from the SCAF and its allies. Today, they see no reason to demobilize: Mubarak’s coercive apparatus and its repressive practices are alive and well; emergency laws and military trials of civilians are prevalent; demonstrations and strikes are banned by law; the SCAF continues to dominate and manipulate the transition process through shameless legal and institutional engineering as well as ideological divide-and-rule tactics; the government stigmatizes labor demands and dismisses their socioeconomic grievances; and the propaganda machines inherited from the Mubarak era are still tirelessly working on demonizing anti-SCAF political dissidents.
From this perspective, reverting back to a more “normalized” and orderly form of politics, as per SCAF’s directives, locks in an unfavorable political reality that pushes the struggle for transformative change from Tahrir Square (back) to “Square 1.” Complete normalcy in political life, the argument goes, is the enemy of these movements, because it simply reinforces the SCAF’s narrative that the Revolution’s mission has been accomplished and it is time for Egypt to move on.
More so, the return of normalized politics effectively reconfigures the balance of power inside the opposition in favor of the “elders”—or the political parties and elites who enjoy the resources and experience to participate in elections and secure representation—thereby pulling the rug once again from under the protest movements sector. This would come at a time when many believe that the most imminent challenge facing advocates of transformative change in Egypt is not making elections free and fair, but rather giving them depth and meaning by taming unaccountable bureaucratic centers of power, stripping them of the ability to dictate the terms of this transition, and making them subservient to civilian leadership.
These bureaucracies are not only limited to the SCAF, which continues to manipulate this “transition” in order to limit its scope in such a way that preserves the army’s longstanding political and economic privileges. Such attempts were most recently reflected in the SCAF sponsored government’s attempts to single-handedly impose “supra-constitutional” principles that, if approved, would have made the military, its budget, and the vast economic enterprises it owns above parliamentary oversight and public transparency. However, another unaccountable center of power is the Ministry of Interior. As evidenced by the tremendous amount of violence that the ministry’s forces have employed against unarmed demonstrators in recent events, this institution has witnessed very little reform since Mubarak’s ouster and continues to follow the same repressive practices prevalent during the previous order. Still another center of power is the Ministry of Information and its affiliated propaganda mouthpieces. Together, they continue to stigmatize political dissent in ways not dissimilar to the Mubarak days, such as consistently portraying anti-SCAF protesters as paid thugs and foreign agents. On this same list of unaccountable centers of power is also the Ministry of Finance and various bodies responsible for making consequential economic decisions affecting the lives of millions of Egyptians independent of any form of public deliberation or transparency.
For those who still wonder why demonstrations in Egypt have not ceased even when the country is poised to hold its first post-Mubarak multiparty vote, it is the persistence of the aforementioned problems that accounts for why the crowds have not subsided and have time and again returned to public squares since February. The recent battles between protesters and the police are not merely a personal spat between security personnel and a specific group of individuals. Rather, they speak to the broader problem that security forces have not changed their ways since Mubarak’s downfall. More generally, the clashes speak to the SCAF’s efforts to minimize the scope of reform inside executive institutions and unaccountable bureaucracies, especially the Ministry of Interior.
Some argue that the prospective parliament that is scheduled to emerge after these elections would pick up where protest movements have left off, and would be able to tame unruly executive institutions and limit their influence over the direction of this transition. This assessment, however, ignores a number of important considerations.
Firstly, from a legal standpoint, the prospective parliament will only have limited powers vis-à-vis the almighty ruling military council—thanks to the SCAF-engineered constitutional framework that governs this transition until this day. For example, while the constitutional declaration currently in effect states (in an unusually brief paragraph) that the parliament’s lower house enjoys the power to oversee executive institutions, a SCAF member recently pointed out that the legislature is not legally empowered to either form a new government or withdraw confidence from the SCAF appointed cabinet. Furthermore, even though the declaration grants parliament the power to legislate and devise a national budget, the document delegates to the SCAF these very same powers—not to mention the right to “object” to laws.
The constitutional declaration aside, it remains that the 2012 parliament is scheduled to operate within a legal framework that is constructed and controlled by the same body that it is supposed to check and oversee: the SCAF. In other words, the assumption that this parliament will have the sufficient legal and constitutional resources to institute greater vertical accountability and to act as the SCAF’s partner in this transition—and not as a punching bag for the generals to hide behind—is deeply problematic. Absent an exogenous shock—such as the ongoing demonstrations and sit-ins—that could potentially force a meaningful change in the current legal framework governing this transition, the realm of orderly politics by itself can hardly pose a serious challenge to the military’s dominance of this transition and to the conspicuous persistence of unchecked power inside the state’s bureaucracies.
Secondly, the notion that these elections will yield the sort of parliament that contains the political will to redeem this transition and widen the scope of political reform fails to account for the distortions associated with the electoral field that Egyptians are about to enter. For one, the electoral system will make it difficult for national political reform agendas to break into parliamentary chambers. The relatively small size of electoral districts on which these elections are based gives an advantage to actors who know how to cater to local parochial interests and can court voters through short-term provision of goods and services. Groups that are primarily oriented toward national platforms and agendas tend to have a harder time breaking into these locally-protected markets, especially in rural Egypt where local networks of influence and privilege tend to dominate the electoral field. This is reflected in the fact that many of the parties that were initially opposed to any participation of ex-NDP members in the elections were ultimately forced to field such candidates in rural districts. That is because the pool of competitive candidates in these regions tends to be dominated by locally influential families, which were historically allied with Mubarak’s party. It was reported, for instance, that almost all the prominent parties and coalitions recruited ex-NDP members in South Sinai, including the liberal Al-Wafd, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice, the Salafist Al-Nour, and the secular Free Egyptians. Thus the view that national issues and concerns, particularly those relating to democratic and economic reform, will largely shape the upcoming electoral outcomes is questionable.
Concededly, it is true that some (though not all) activists affiliated with the youth protest movements that played a leading role in last winter’s eighteen-day uprising are fielding candidates in the elections, most notably through the Revolution Continues Alliance. The Revolution Continues encompasses the Revolution’s Youth Coalition, former April 6 movement members, and the activists who were once tied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth before they left the group earlier this year to help co-found the Egyptian Current Party.
However, the assumption that the political forces standing in support of the Tahrir Square occupation right now have a fair shot at securing substantial representation in the next parliament is unrealistic. A quick glance at the sheer number of candidates that each party or coalition is fielding signals that the voices that were most pronounced in Tahrir on January 25 are not the leading contenders in this race. For example, the Revolution Continues Alliance is only competing for about sixty percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. On the other hand, traditional political forces inherited from the Mubarak era like Al-Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood (not to mention all the NDP offshoots) are the groups that were able to gather the necessary resources to field candidates for almost all the available seats. Among newly established parties, it was only wealthy parties that succeeded in matching these groups in fielding enough candidates to contest a substantial number of the seats. These include the Free Egyptians –which was founded by billionaire Naguib Sawiris and is the leading party of the Egyptian Bloc coalition—as well as Salafist parties like Al-Nour—which seems to enjoy a great deal of funding from “unknown” financiers (though the Al-Nour’s rivals charge that it receives support from like-minded governments in the Gulf).
Thirdly, the reliability of the political elites that dominate electorally powerful parties, along with their commitment to building solid parliamentary blocs devoted to advancing the type of far-reaching reforms for which demonstrators are calling for today, is debatable. Many of these individuals bring to the table a long history of opportunism and collaboration with the Mubarak regime, and it takes a lot of diligence to overlook the fact that this has not changed even after Mubarak’s overthrow. Limited political gains seem to still heavily dictate the agendas of these leaders, as evidenced most recently by the gap between their proclaimed goals of ending military rule and their refusal to lend anti-SCAF demonstrators in Tahrir Square with anything more than just lip service. For instance, only a few days after calling on supporters to flood Tahrir Square to protest SCAF’s autocratic ways in imposing binding principles on prospective constitution writers, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate in subsequent demonstrations, which called for an immediate end to military rule. Fearing that the upsurge in public protest could result in the postponement of the elections in which it expects large gains, the Muslim Brotherhood conveniently steered away from demonstrations, and—through its silence—effectively accepted continued SCAF management of this transition. Notwithstanding their professed opposition to extended military rule, almost all parties that are heavily vested in the electoral process–such as Al-Wafd and Al-Nour—followed the Brotherhood`s lead, preferring not to risk the imminent opportunity to secure representation in the new parliament. These are all signs that the long-standing tension between the goals of establishment elite politics and contentious political activism is likely to persist even after elections, and that pragmatism and the logic of competitive politics could very well distort the alignment between groups and individuals in Tahrir Square and those engaged in formal politics.
Finally, the electoral gains that Islamist groups like the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party are poised to score will most probably revive traditional rivalries and conflicts between Islamist political trends and non-Islamists. This will almost certainly limit the ability of this new parliament to form solid coalitions around efforts to stand-up against the SCAF and push it out of the driver’s seat. One of the enduring lessons of the past three decades is that the first casualty of Islamist-secular stand-offs is democratic reform, because such conflicts have always given authoritarian rulers the ability to play divide-and-rule with their challengers. This trend was as prevalent after Mubarak’s ouster as it was before it. After all, when the SCAF recently attempted to impose supra-constitutional principles that place the military beyond parliamentary and public oversight, it did so under the pretext of devising constitution-writing guidelines that would supposedly protect individual rights and religious freedom from any future “Islamist” dominated legislature. While right now it may seem that SCAF has permanently lost control over this transition given the recent outbreak of anti-SCAF public anger, the likely reemergence of Islamist/non-Islamist ideological spats in this new parliament could very well provide it with sufficient wiggle room to reclaim its role as the sole arbiter of this transition.
In sum, there are a number of reasons to question the assumption that elections could yield a parliament that is willing, capable, and equipped to overcome the SCAF’s resistance to move this transition in a more democratic direction: the limited powers that the current legal framework awards the parliament vis-à-vis the SCAF; the distorting effect that the electoral system will probably have on national reform agendas; the dominance of narrow agendas and opportunism among electorally powerful elites; and the persistence of ideological divisions inside the political community across the Islamist/non-Islamist divide.
Where does all this leave us on the first day of voting?
The realities at hand seem to indicate that participating in these elections do come at a hefty cost, namely lending legitimacy to a political reality and a constitutional framework that give the SCAF undue power in managing this transition and defining its scope. Elections in this context will also make it difficult to overturn or reconfigure the constitutional framework governing this transition. They will create a community of elected representatives who are personally vested in the same framework that mass demonstrations have sought to overturn in recent days through its demands to form a civilian-led body that could take the lead in managing the rest of the transitional period. On a broader level, these elections are an integral element of the SCAF’s “mission accomplished” narrative, which posits that protest movements must demobilize and show deference to the “elders” among elite politicians, elected representatives and constitution-writers. The elections, in other words, pose more challenges to the battle for transformative change in Egypt than meets the eye.
This is not to say that boycotting the elections is the way to go—a question that falls beyond the scope of this discussion. Rather, the takeaway is that without the continuation of popular pressures and mass demonstrations, the elections and the parliament they will generate would not be able to resist the SCAF’s efforts to limit the scope of this transition by means of the undue influence it has garnered over the direction and agenda of reform. Otherwise, elections will end up moving the battle for transformative change from the streets and public squares to a more exclusive political field that is more amenable to the SCAF’s manipulation.
[Click here for a French translation of this article.]
From Jadaliyya Editors:
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