For many people, it is compelling, if not intuitive, to think of Egypt’s parliamentary elections as a logical extension of what Egyptians started on 25 January 2011. Elections, the conventional reasoning goes, are a critical step in Egypt’s transition toward a democratic form of governance that is poised to replace the decades-old rule of former President Hosni Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party. Seen from the inside, however, this reasoning seems fairly detached from a much more complex reality.
The Universe of Transition
It has become embarrassingly obvious for most Egyptians that the advent of parliamentary elections has divided the country into two “universes” that, for the time being, seem very distant from one another: the “universe of transition” and the “universe of revolution.” The universe of transition is occupied and led by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and a host of elite politicians who, for different reasons, have advanced the narrative that Egypt’s revolution and its goals will find a new life in organized politics, including electoral institutions and national legislatures.
The SCAF sees the recent elections as a way to channel unruly political dissent into an organized sector that it can easily manipulate and control through legal engineering and limited pacts. Specifically, the SCAF sees in the elections, the parliament they are yielding, and the constitution that this parliament will produce, an opportunity to work with elite politicians to carve out a political system in which competitive elections and national legislatures would not pose any meaningful threats to the military establishment’s longstanding political and economic privileges. Of more immediate concern to the officers, at a time when Mubarak and his associates face trial for murdering peaceful protesters, SCAF members fear that they could face prosecution for similar charges unless they shepherd this transition through an exclusive political process that they can manage and control.
For their part, establishment “politicians” who have secured significant gains at the ballot boxes, chief among them the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), see in the formal political arena an opportunity to secure the upper hand in shaping the rules of the political game, not to mention making critical policy decisions in the near future. While working obediently through the SCAF-designed legal framework puts them in a weak position vis-à-vis the military establishment, it strengthens them vis-à-vis other members of the political community that failed to garner the same electoral agility demonstrated by groups like the FJP, the Salafist Al-Nour Party, and to a lesser extent, the liberal Al-Wafd Party as well as the secular-leaning coalition known as the Egyptian Bloc. Thus, it was not surprising to recently hear voices from inside the Muslim Brotherhood suggesting that the group is ready to entertain a pact with SCAF that would give military institutions and their leaders some form of reserved powers in the new constitution such that they would remain beyond the reach of public transparency and parliamentary oversight. Nor was it surprising to hear a tacit silence from other political leaders who seem, at best, ambivalent about this alleged pact.
The Universe of Revolution
Apart from ballot boxes, vote-counts, and parliamentary politics, the universe of revolution encompasses all the groups and protest movements that have refused to cede to the SCAF’s demand to demobilize and work through—if not, defer to—SCAF-sponsored formal political channels (e.g., elections) in advancing their agendas and objectives. These activists remain convinced that in light of SCAF’s demonstrated determination to limit the scope and depth of this transition through legal engineering, repressive practices, and deadly violence, Egypt’s 25 January Revolution will remain an inconclusive struggle until military leaders step aside and make way for more transformative changes. Whereas the “universe of transition” sees Egypt advancing through an interim transitional framework, the “universe of revolution” sees Egypt suffocating under the rule of military dictatorship.
From the perspective of those who inhabit the “universe of revolution,” the critical battle at hand is not convening free and fair elections, but giving these elections depth and meaning— by ensuring that real power in the remainder of this transition and over future decision-making rests within institutions that are truly accountable, transparent, and responsive to popular demands. For them, achieving the goals of this Revolution—bread, freedom, and social justice—requires much deeper transformations in the Egyptian state than what the SCAF-managed transition, along with one round of elections, can possibly offer. Specifically, the real challenge they see is in the task of taming unruly bureaucracies that shape the daily lives of millions of Egyptian in order to make them more transparent, accountable, and responsive to public needs. These bureaucracies include military institutions—the alleged guardians of this so-called transition—that still dominate significant sectors of the Egyptian economy and state resources, all outside the framework of public transparency and parliamentary oversight. They also include the Ministry of Interior, which continues to host Mubarak’s coercive apparatus that has yet to cease its old ways, as evidenced by the deadly violence it has repeatedly employed against unarmed protesters in the past ten months and its persistent intimidation and arrests of political activists. To this list must be added the Ministry of Information, which remains an instrument of propaganda for wielders of power, especially in their current efforts to publicly stigmatize political dissent using tactics not dissimilar to those followed during the Mubarak era. Also included are the Ministry of Finance and other government bodies that make economic decisions affecting the lives of millions of Egyptians away from any form of public deliberation or transparency.
For the committed activists who occupy the “universe of revolution,” overhauling these institutions cannot be achieved through a SCAF-designed political system that accommodates and privileges unaccountable sectors of power inside the Egyptian state. In other words, those who have persistently gathered in public squares in protest of SCAF’s rule over the past ten months seek a transformative revolution, not a limited pact with the officers. These activists view the January 25 Revolution as a rebellion against not only the rule of Mubarak, but also against elitist politicians who have a long history of underhanded deals with the former president—deals that, for many, resemble the emerging pact between the military and the winners of the parliamentary elections.
Contesting Interpretations: One Year Later
The tension between the “universe of transition” and the “universe of revolution” was perhaps most pronounced in preparations for 25 January 2012, the first anniversary of the eighteen-day uprising that toppled Mubarak. SCAF, as well as major organized political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, treated this day as one of celebration, with the clear assumption (and perhaps message) that the goals of the Revolution have decisively been accomplished through recent elections. Occupants of the “universe of revolution,” on the other hand, saw no reason to celebrate with the military still in charge, and viewed January 25 as an opportunity to contest and resist SCAF’s domineering role in determining the future of this country. As candidates and parties closely followed vote tallies, activists and protest movements worked tirelessly to spread awareness of both the abuse that Egyptians have suffered at the hands of security forces under SCAF’s leadership as well as of the nation-wide protests held on 25 January. While the “universe of transition” wanted to make that day about 25 January 2011, the “universe of revolution” was determined to make it about 25 January 2012, and what will follow it.
Free and fair elections are an integral part of any established democracy. However, for students of politics, whether elections alone can be the vehicle for attaining a truly democratic system remains—at best—debatable. In a context in which Egyptians have to grab onto their gas masks and helmets every time they go out to peacefully express their political views, there is only so much that elections can achieve by themselves. Thus, whether or not the recent elections will be a channel for advancing the type of transformative change that Egyptians called for on 25 January 2011, depends on the ability of popular pressure coming from the “universe of revolution” to trump elitist pacts and to have its say in debates over Egypt’s emerging political and social order.
Egypt today faces a choice between an officers-politicians pact that could help the country “transition” to a managed form of limited political competition and participation, versus a much more comprehensive process of revolutionary change dictated and advanced by popular pressures and demands. More specifically, on 25 January 2012, Egyptians faced a choice between celebrating the anniversary of their revolution while deferring to the “elders” to negotiate their future, or taking matters into their own hands and building upon the memory of January 25 to finish what they started one year ago.
[This piece was published in collaboration with Georgetown University`s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) as part of Jadaliyy`s Egypt Elections Watch. It appeared in the Winter-Spring 2012 CCAS Newsletter.]