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A farce difficult to boycott

Why Tahrir II is also a criticism to the elections

27. November 2011
by Wilhelm Langthaler

Actually so far never before Egyptians have been allowed to contest free and fair elections. After the toppling of Mubarak it is only too understandable that the population is keen to enjoy its newly acquired rights. But why, then, millions are taking to the streets and rallying at the famous Tahrir right before these elections?

Short-sighted Muslim Brotherhood’s calculus

The spectrum most keen to go to the polls is the Islamist one with its two branches, namely the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the various Salafis. This might seem paradoxical as it does not fit into the European islamophobe prejudice and also the claim of some Salafi trends that elections do contradict the sovereign rule of good.

Their rationale, however, is all too terrestrial. The MB is the best established opposition party and well prepared for electoral campaigning while the Salafis are lavished with Saudi money. They can expect a landslide victory enhancing their stance in the political system despite the severe limitations to the prerogatives of the parliament.

It is nearly impossible to predict their share of votes but observers say that it mainly depends on the turnout. Mohamed Waked, a well-known Tahrir activist and leader of the National Front, a political project to unify the revolutionary movement, estimates that the Islamist share could roughly range between one to two thirds.

To secure these elections was the main aim of the MB since the toppling of Mubarak. Right after they entered a block with the military council in order to marginalise the revolutionary movement. The first step was the referendum on amending the constitution back in March. It stipulated that first parliamentary elections would be staged and only later the constitutional setup changed.

The revolutionary movement refused this move but was defeated by a two third majority. They argued essentially that elections under the continued rule of the military and de facto old regime can neither be fair nor free but will on the contrary help to keep the old system in place. First the military must withdraw, the old system should be dismantled and a new constitution drafted. Only then elections will be useful for the people. In a certain sense they opted for the more radical Tunisian approach.

The Islamists reproached to the revolutionaries that by opposing early elections they prolonged military rule because they feared a democratically decided Islamist majority. They actually continue to employ this argument up to today. It is quite demagogical as it was the MB to enter a block with the military council allowing them to continue their rule. While their equation in the first place seemed plausible marginalising and eventually also oppressing the revolutionary movement it gradually turned out to become untenable.

The new outburst of the revolutionary movement is the expression of the refusal of the aforementioned setup between the military and the Islamists. It is not only the secular left with is opposing the military council but also the majority of the Islamic masses. Simply the MB’s opportunist trajectory of changing the system from within without going against the military and the social elites was falsified by reality. Their alliance with the military first of all helped the top brass to stabilise and regain political ground. That let them to the attempt to reproduce the old system. The generals went so far even to endanger the elections as they are not happy to see the Islamists, their un-loved allies, as political victor. So eventually the MB had to pull the emergency break and cancel their pact with the military. Actually it was the mass movement to force them to do so. But their significantly lost ground as they had to go against and still are opposed to Tahrir II while in January their lately had managed to embrace Tahrir I.

The MB is somewhat stuck between the hammer of the revolutionary movement and the ambo of Salafi conservatism. The power of the pressure from below is exemplified in the incredible fact that even the largest Salafi party (all of them were close to Mubarak), Al Nour, today supports Tahrir II.

Electoral pitfalls

The entire electoral system is designed to cut out the revolutionary movement. All the changes implemented during the preparations regarded only the relationship between the army and its closest allies on one hand and the Islamic forces on the other. The principled criticism of the left that first the new rules of the game must be democratically defined before the match can begin is substantiated by the concrete shortcomings of the rules:

1) The parliament is void of any powers. It neither can build a government nor can it legislate against the will of the military. Its only purpose is to choose the constituent assembly.

2) One third of the seats are distributed by a single winner system. This means that in the urban environment most seats will go to the MB or here and there Salafi candidates while in the rural areas many ex-Mubarak notables will make it.

3) Two thirds of the seats are contested by lists with a maximum of ten positions but often also less. That means a threshold of at best 10% up to sometimes 25% to gain one seat. Thus smaller lists are cut out.

4) Party registration requires a lot of money which de facto is only possible with the support of big business or the army. For the different revolutionary forces, and not only for them, registration therefore was impossible. This created opportunist electoral blocks without principles.

5) A certain amount of seats are directly appointed by the military council.

6) Scarcely populated regions are better represented to the benefit of the ex-Mubarak notables.

Difficult boycott

All this let the radical part of the revolutionary movement to call for the boycott of the elections. But this remained a difficult position not easy to sustain. The popular expectations into the elections were too high. So eventually only two weeks before the registration deadline an electoral block called “Revolution Continues Alliance” was formed referring to the movement. Also those boycotting in the last instance will be interested that the block does well.

The alliance is composed of several leftist groups often with a long reaching history, the pro-Tahrir people of the MB which have been purged by the more conservative leadership and revolutionary youth groups emerging directly out of the Tahrir including some left liberal tendencies. For a lack of preparation and candidates there is also a bulk of unknown, inexperienced and sometimes even doubtful candidates with the potential of harming the alliance.

Given the undemocratic system it is quite possible that the alliance which could garner about 10% of the electorate might not even conquer one single seat.

Boycott is not only problematic because of the existence of the Revolution Continues Alliance whose defeat will be nolens volens a setback for the entire revolutionary movement. The possibly more important aspect is the popular expectations in the elections by the politically more passive layers which are represented by the Islamic forces.

Tahrir II

Given this context the current mass movement is the best thing which could have happened carrying a strong criticism against both the electoralist approach of the Islamic forces as well as the electoral setup in general. The central demand of the movement, that the military council has to leave politics to a civil transitional government, has full legitimacy within the popular masses including the Islamic ones. It is impossible to argue why the military should stay. By doing so the MB will loose a lot of consensus. One the other hand frontally going against the elections will not help the movement and even offer a pretext to the MB to oppose the revolutionary movement.

The last move of the Tahrir intifada to propose a kind of people’s-backed transitional government led by Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, a former MB leader and presidential candidate from the more liberal wing in support of the Tahrir, Hamdeen Sabbahi, the Nasserite presidential candidate, and Mohamed ElBaradei, is a big step ahead. It for the first time offers a profiled alternative. The problem for the time being seems that despite the credibility and consensus of these figures — if they come as a package — were is no mechanism, no body, no guarantee that they remain liable to the people’s movement.

One should remember that Issam Sharaf, the interim prime minister appointed after the fall of Mubarak, first was welcomed by the movement. But he remained a dependent tool of the SCAF swiftly loosing credit.

To come closer to people’s power a broad political front of the revolution is decisive upon which such a popular government can rest.

November 27, 2011