Ten lessons from Egypt’s elections

In the midst of a revolutionary winter, one writer sees rays of sunshine. The lack of a clear winner in the presidential election bears one overriding message: Egypt is changing. 

Iyad El-Baghdadi
29 May 2012

There are reasons to celebrate?  I can already hear you protest. Yes, I know how cruel the results are. And no, I’m not talking about this being our first free elections or the first time our votes actually count. (Although it is both of these things, not to mention the atmosphere of transparency and security. We may as well point it out - ask a Pakistani how many people die in their elections.) 

For some, the results show division, with votes split across five candidates, none of whom received more than 25%. Nevertheless, these results give me reason to hope, even to celebrate. We’re fresh out of an era where a single candidate runs and always wins by a devastating majority. The fact that we have no one clear 'slam dunk' winner spells out one thing louder than anything. Our world is changing.

A repeat of pre-Arab Spring elections, with one candidate winning by a landslide, would have been truly depressing for me. A bitter, split race between two main candidates would have been equally depressing, representing a deep polarisation in society.

So let’s allow ourselves a little smile and a pat on the back. The election results may have impaled us on the horns of a dilemma, but if we allow ourselves to look back, we can see how far forward we’ve come. This may not be good, but it isn’t all bad.

The tallies are not disastrous

Yes, the tallies conspired to give us a scenario that would have been comical if it wasn’t so real – we either bring back the regime we just removed, or give our votes to Egypt becoming yet another one-party state. But the tallies themselves tell a different story, that isn’t all that disastrous. Note that:

  • The revolution is not a minority. If we put Sabbahi’s and Abulfutouh’s votes together – widely believed to be representatives of the revolution – we get roughly 40% of the vote. This is not insignificant, even before taking into account the revolutionaries who voted for the MB’s Morsy.
  • The old regime is not a majority. If we put Shafik’s and Moussa’s votes together – both long-time officials in the old regime – we get under 35%. This is not insignificant, but is certainly not the majority some pundits keep referring to as a "silent majority” or “the couch party”.
  • Islamists are losing ground. If we put Morsy’s and Abulfutouh’s votes together – the first endorsed by the MB and the second by the Salafis (among others) – we get roughly 45%. While this is a significant figure, it’s nowhere near the 65% Islamists got in the parliamentary elections.

The 'revolution' did not win these elections. But we lost by a few points, due to poor strategy – not by a knockout due to poor numbers.

In all cases we must be mature enough to realize that there will always be people who put security ahead of liberty, and people who have an illiberal vision for the future. The fight against authoritarianism is far from over; but we have to acknowledge that it exists before having any hope of defeating it. Our enemy isn’t a group of people, but a set of ideas.

The turnout was low

We’re yet to get the official figures, but voter turnout was less than during last year’s parliamentary elections. Some activists boycotted the elections, including Asmaa Mahfouz who was under pressure till the last moment, from her family, friends, and large following. Despite all their pressure she just didn’t feel right about voting when the SCAF is still in power and the constitution isn’t even written.

I’m not sure how many people shared her views and decided not to elect a president without a clear job description, but in such a close race, even a minority can become statistically significant. If those who did not vote did so out of protest, then we can only assume that they are, in fact, dissatisfied revolutionaries rather than indifferent members of the now infamous “couch party”.

Media performance was haphazard and messy

When vote count results started pouring in, polling station by polling station, I couldn’t make sense of them, so I created a Google document to tabulate and keep track. I rallied my Twitter followers to help, and soon enough we had a wonderful seven-person team who gave a minute by minute, hour by hour coverage from start to finish, a coverage that many said was among the best and most professional.

It’s certainly an achievement to be proud of, but what does it mean when an impromptu team whose members never met before and aren’t even in the same country give a coverage that competes with established news stations? When I started that Google document I thought it would be one of many, expecting all major news stations to have their own live tallies, but instead what we saw was embarrassingly haphazard vote count figures that generated far more confusion than information.

Towards the last third of the vote count, some news stations started floating the possibility of Sabbahi being in a strong second, or even a momentary lead. Having already tallied most of Egypt’s governorates, we saw that  this was more a pipe dream than a realistic scenario. Yes, some of Shafik’s numbers were inexplicably large, but numbers don’t lie and do not change by wishful thinking alone. I felt that this episode irresponsibly strained many people’s emotions in an already tense race.
Hats off to @GalalAmrG, @MohAmrfadel, @moftasa, @amkoraiem, @shadyanwar, and @AmrEldib – the team that, as @ZayedMourad said, “provided the best reporting of the presidential election numbers, putting any news channels to shame.” Or, as @Agoooz said, “went above & beyond any others, [and] did what professional media couldn't do with its huge resources”: the team that @Cairo67Unedited described as “highly exemplary in its singleminded professionalism”. Very proud to have worked with you all, totally worth the 30-hour marathon!

The debates seem to have harmed rather than helped the participating candidates

Enlightened debate is no doubt possible, but more often than not, political debates are civilized mudslinging, with the winner being the one who gets out  of there with less mud plastered on his face.

Abulfotouh hurt Moussa by exposing some of his weaknesses, and Moussa hurt Abulfotouh by exposing some of his weaknesses, and the winner was all  the other candidates who did not participate in the debate. In fact, I feel that if Hamdeen Sabbahi or Shafik or even Morsy had participated in any pre-election debate, many of their own weaknesses would have been exposed as well.

But there’s another factor – debates put a candidate, his programme, and his past under scrutiny, and he always comes out more exposed than before. Throughout 7000 years of Egypt’s history, the ruler has had an aura of awe and mystery around him. Scrutinizing and exposing something always makes it less awesome and mysterious. Perhaps Egyptians are not ready for a president without that aura.
Finally, I heard more than one person say that we may never see presidential debates again, because candidates will learn the lesson and avoid them. I say, of course they would say that. No candidate wants to be put under scrutiny or asked to explain himself. It’s up to us to demand it and see that it’s done. They’ll only manage to avoid debate if we let them.

No candidate can be everyone’s candidate

Before the elections, Abulfutouh was hailed as “the candidate of unity”, having exceptionally wide appeal that included hardline Salafi Islamists, revolutionary urbanite liberals, and everything in between. However, he ended up with the most disappointing numbers of all (with the possible exception of Moussa, who was once thought a front-runner).

There will be much written about why Abulfutouh did not do better. Perhaps the debates hurt him. Perhaps his past MB connections scared some liberals, who voted Sabbahi instead (although the latter is a leftist). Perhaps the Salafis voted Morsy, despite their party’s official endorsement. Or perhaps Abulfutouh simply didn’t have a big organization behind him, such as Morsy and Shafik had.

But the fact remains that no one can be everyone’s candidate. Consensus, when it comes, doesn’t come through conciliatory pandering but through fighting hard through the differences. It’s hammered out, not coaxed. Our Arab Spring in general, and Egypt in particular, aren’t ready for this kind of consensus-building, and until it is, the best way to build a wide appeal is to build a coalition.

An Abulfutouh-Sabbahi run would have been an easy win. We have to learn to reach across camps and build a unified front that represents the revolution. Yes, it will be imperfect, it will be eclectic, and in ways it will even be contradictory – more an umbrella than a team. But it will still be an order of magnitude better than what we have now. In short, we have to build a coalition, rather than find someone who is himself a coalition.

The results read more like a late showdown between two beasts from another era

A Morsy vs. Shafik runoff pits the Muslim Brotherhood against its arch-nemesis, the previous regime. And I’m not only talking about Mubarak’s regime – I’m talking about the state apparatus built over the past 60 years over the presidencies of Nasser, Sadat, and the unlucky prisoner of Tora. The enmity between the two did not start last year – it goes back (at least) all the way to 1952.

And so both beasts in this fight are many decades old, having been born in a very different world. On the surface we may see glitzy and modern campaigns manned by young volunteers, but screw your eyes up a little and you’ll see two dinosaurs from another epoch locked in a mortal fight, but in a new world – one in which they increasingly look out of place. They may be enemies, but they were born of the same womb.

We have no dog in this fight, but it presents a horrible dilemma. Shafik’s presidency can bring back the old regime with all its corruption and cruelty, albeit with a new face. Morsy’s presidency can give us the comical irony of a one-party state just 18 months after a revolution, with the MB dominating both chambers of parliament, the presidency, and the constitutional committee.

Whatever the case, the revolution continues. I have repeatedly said that while we may not be a majority, we aren’t a minority either, and we’ve proven ourselves to be very loud. The Arab Spring resides in our psyche – our imagination – more than in any ballot boxes or parliament halls. As Asmaa said, those who brought down a dictator are always ready to do it again. This isn’t over, it’s just started.

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other options

As a libertarian, I can badmouth democracy for hours. And as an Arab Spring ideologue, I truly believe that humanity will outgrow democracy towards an even better ideology and form of government. But until then, let’s be pragmatic. Democracy is our best option – even if we want to cynically call it the best among several bad options.

The MB & the ex-regime’s candidates had large, multi-layered organizations behind them, ones built on obedience and vertical control. They also had money – and enough of it to influence results, be it through thinly veiled vote buying, or through so-called “social programmes” that engender gratitude and loyalty among the poor, and translate into votes when the time comes.

These are serious problems, yes, but you don’t learn swimming by sitting on the shore and reading books about it. Our people won’t learn democracy except by practicing democracy. Once in a while, they’ll fall flat on their faces and elect the wrong candidate, but they’ll learn, get up again, and do better the next time around.

This is true always, but is especially so when our societies are taking their first clumsy steps out of an Age of Tyranny. We have to allow time for the ideas of that age to be shed, and for new ideas for an Age of Liberty to form and settle. And until then, perhaps it’s better for us to be fervent rebels than clumsy administrators. Perhaps we need more time to prepare, rather than be thrust unprepared onto the world stage.

There’s no absence of drama queens

The elections were dramatic and nail-bitingly close, no doubt. And the potential for a Morsy-Shafik runoff is comically ironic. This is all dramatic enough, without any need for drama queens.

  • There are those who become too attached to their preferred candidates, rather than their ideas. There was childish mudslinging, finger-pointing, and nose-thumbing. This is immature and has to stop.
  • Then there are those who exaggerate the danger of either Shafik or Morsy, so that you’d think that we were in thirteenth century Baghdad with the Mongols at the gates.

Yes, there’s cause for concern, but let’s put things in perspective. Perhaps I should remind you that we had a revolution that, more than anything else, sent a powerful message to the next president that he no longer has a free hand to do whatever he wants. We are not electing a new supreme leader – we are electing an executive who will work within the frameworks of an institution.

The priority is, and has always been, this institution. Those who boycotted these elections out of protest had a point – if the state apparatus remains as corrupt as it currently is, or as dominated by one party as it promises to be, then no good can come out of it, no matter who heads it. Fixing a broken system is hard enough work, and drama queens don’t really help.

We have no party and no front

“We” here means the youths of the revolution. We have no organization, or party, or coalition, or umbrella. We can hardly call ourselves a movement (in a formal sense) either. Famous activists have formed large followings, but no vision, programme, or even hints at an ideology. Our leaderless revolution is still leaderless. No wonder we had to “borrow” candidates from another generation for the presidential election.

To move forward we need to (at least) forge a unified vision. Eventually, though, we’ll have to fill the gaping hole in our political thought that was, for many generations, filled by one tyrant or another. Unseating the tyrant is the easy part – providing a post-tyranny, Arab Spring solution is the true challenge for our generation. And it’s no task that can be completed in a few months. This is going to take a decade.

But let’s look at the bright side. Yes, we are divided. Yes, we are inexperienced. Yes, our path is long, rough, unpaved, uphill, and laced with mines. But – we are the future. We’re still dizzy from the crazy rush of 2011, but we need to move from vertigo to vision. We have to get our act together and find our voice. The Arab Spring needs an Arab Spring manifesto.

To read more of our Egypt coverage, visit our Arab Awakening page.

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