Egypt’s election dead end

May 31, 2012

Alan Maass analyzes Egypt's presidential vote--and the response of the left to a runoff that offers no choice for those who want to see the revolution's goals advanced.

EGYPT'S PRESIDENTIAL election has produced a runoff between Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Hosni Mubarak and an open representative of the old regime that was shaken to its roots by the mass rebellion that brought down Mubarak in February 2011.

The results are a grave disappointment to supporters of the January 25 revolution. Shafiq is the face of the Mubarak security apparatus that so many millions of Egyptians rose up against. During his brief time as prime minister, he is believed to have helped organize the bloody Battle of the Camel last year, when thousands of pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Shafiq's main promise during the campaign was to bring security back to the streets within 24 hours of coming to power. That vow is universally and rightly understood to mean that he would unleash the military--which is already guilty of murderous crimes against protesters in the post-Mubarak period--to crush all dissent.

Presidential candidates Ahmed Shafiq (left) and Mohamed Morsi
Presidential candidates Ahmed Shafiq (left) and Mohamed Morsi

For this reason, some on the Egyptian left are supporting a vote for Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in the runoff election--as a lesser evil to Shafiq.

But the Brotherhood can't be relied on to defend democracy if it wins the presidency. While harshly repressed under Mubarak, it vacillated during the 2011 rebellion against the dictatorship. Its members often played a leading role--for example, in defending Tahrir Square against Shafiq's thugs--but the organization was very slow to participate at all in the demonstrations.

Moreover, since Mubarak's fall, the Brotherhood has collaborated often with Egypt's military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)--crucially, in opposing ongoing demonstrations when the military escalated its attacks on democracy protests. Within months of Mubarak's resignation, Egyptian activists were describing the Brotherhood as seeking to become the "political arm" of the military rulers.

The Brotherhood has had its own conflicts with the military, and the positions of its leaders aren't always embraced by its supporters at the rank-and-file level. But at important points, the Brotherhood's opposition to left forces has bolstered the position of the military.

BOTH MORSI and Shafiq were late in entering the campaign--Morsi was a replacement for another Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was disqualified from the election, and Shafiq himself was initially disqualified because of his connections to the Mubarak regime, but won an appeal to the election commission. The two candidates did poorly in polls until the final weeks before the vote.

But in the end, both of them blew past the frontrunner for most of the campaign, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak and secretary-general of the Arab League until last year. Moussa was viewed by many as a candidate of the old regime, but with a more acceptable face, since he claimed to have differed with Mubarak. Moussa finished a dismal fifth--showing that supporters of the counter-revolution were strongly behind Shafiq instead.

The two other leading candidates, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, were associated with the continuation of the revolution, and together, they got nearly 40 percent of the vote, far more than Morsi and Shafiq got individually.

Sabahi was a long-time opponent of Mubarak, jailed 17 times for dissent against the regime. He took part in the mass protests of the January 25 revolution from the first day. As the candidate of the Nasserist Dignity Party, he finished with 20.7 percent of the vote, well ahead of what previous opinion polls predicted for him. According to the official returns, Sabahi won the vote in Egypt's major cities of Cairo and Alexandria, and he did well in working-class areas.

Aboul Fotouh is also a longtime dissident. He is a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled after he announced he would run for president, in spite of the Brotherhood's previous promise not to field a presidential candidate. He was viewed as the moderate Islamist candidate in the election, with liberal positions on social issues, and supportive of the ongoing democracy protests.

Sahabi may well have won enough votes to make the runoff. He finished less than 700,000 votes short of Shafiq, and there are charges of widespread fraud, including an allegation made by a police officer that Shafiq got 900,000 votes from soldiers illegally assigned ballots by the Interior Ministry. But Egypt's election commission ratified the outcome of the first round of elections without hearing a single appeal--a further sign that the regime is backing Shafiq by any and all means.

The turnout for the election--the first presidential vote in the post-Mubarak period--was unexpectedly low, at just 46.4 percent of eligible voters, according to the final totals. This was short of the overall 54 percent turnout in parliamentary elections held over a six-week period from late November to mid-January.

Neither the turnout nor the top finishers in the first round of presidential voting reflects the spirit of last year's January 25 revolution, which depended on a mass mobilization demanding freedom and an end to autocratic rule.

Instead, they show that the military and economic power structure which was shaken by Mubarak's fall has regained initiative and confidence--and that the Muslim Brotherhood still commands the support of millions, despite its compromises with the old regime in return for a share of the power and profits in Egypt.

THE LEAD-UP to the second round of the voting, set for June 16-17, will be tumultuous.

Millions of Egyptians fully recognize that Shafiq is the candidate of the counterrevolution, with a clear goal of rolling back everything gained with the downfall of Mubarak. As Egyptian journalist and socialist Mostafa Ali noted in an interview before the vote, Shafiq's rise reflected the increased confidence of Mubarak's old ruling party and remnants of the old regime. "The forces of the counterrevolution believe the revolutionary moment has passed by," Ali said, "and they're organizing like mad in support of Shafiq."

Shafiq was also bitterly opposed in the first round. On the day he cast his own ballot at a polling station on the outskirts of Cairo, he was confronted by an angry crowd who pelted him with stones and shoes. Among the demonstrators were relatives of protesters killed in the January 25 Revolution, who carried pictures of their martyred loved ones.

Hours after the election commission officially recognized Shafiq as one of the two candidates to advance to the runoff, protesters attacked the candidate's campaign headquarters in Cairo, breaking into the building and setting fire to it. Other democracy activists gathered in Tahrir Square, as well as in Alexandria.

No one should underestimate the threat that Shafiq would represent if he came to power as president. Many Egyptians no doubt plan to vote for Morsi, as a defense of the revolution, despite their differences with him--because they detest the prospect of an apparatchik of the old regime winning back power.

But at the same time, others are furious that their only other choice in the runoff is Morsi. "I can't support Shafiq, and I can't support Morsi," one protester at the demonstration at Shafiq's headquarters told a reporter.

Sabahi, the left's leading candidate in the first round, is calling for a boycott of the runoff and "for creating a revolutionary civil national bloc that works on achieving the January 25 revolution's goals." His Dignity Party announced in a statement: "The party rejects the notion of the Muslim Brotherhood dominating the country's legislative bodies. And it also rejects the notion of handing power over to remnants of the old [Mubarak] regime."

At the start of the week, eight liberal and leftist parties held a meeting to announce the formation of a "united front" of organizations that would refuse to support either candidate in the runoff. The meeting was attended by presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who was the most radical of the 11 people on the ballot in the first round.

Surprisingly, Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists (RS) issued a statement that implicitly supports a vote for Morsi in the second round of the election, while calling on the Muslim Brotherhood to meet a series of demands, including accepting Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh as co-vice presidents; choosing a prime minister from outside the Brotherhood's ranks; dropping its own proposal for labor legislation in favor of a law that guarantees union freedoms; and agreeing to a constitution with guarantees of numerous rights and liberties.

The statement raises many troubling questions. For one thing, the RS has explicitly described the Muslim Brotherhood as having "an interest in sharing power and wealth with the old regime without making fundamental or radical changes to its social and economic policies, or disturbing its vested interests and international affiliations," in the words of one of the group's statements.

As for its demands on the Brotherhood, what if the Brotherhood--universally acknowledged as the largest political organization in the country--doesn't meet them, as seems most likely? The RS has already effectively called for a vote for Morsi in order to defeat Shafiq.

TO BE sure, Shafiq is the candidate of the counter-revolution, and he has to be exposed as such and confronted with protests, just as people took to the streets earlier this week when his spot in the runoff was confirmed.

But it's quite another thing for socialists to call for a lesser-evil vote for the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an avowedly pro-capitalist organization committed to Islamist politics.

The Brotherhood doesn't oppose the hated neoliberal economic policies of the old Mubarak regime and the current military rulers. Indeed, in some ways, it is an even more enthusiastic supporter of free market policies--its criticisms have been limited to the endemic corruption of the old order. The Brotherhood has even agreed to negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on the same conditions as the old regime.

When it comes to unions and strikes by Egyptian workers, the Brotherhood and the SCAF have spoken out as one against them. Workers provided the final push that shoved out Mubarak with a wave of strikes in February 2011, but the Brotherhood quickly called for the walkouts to end, in the name of saving the Egyptian economy--the identical line of the military rulers and Egypt's capitalists.

Also, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to political Islamism and is conservative, on the whole, on many social issues. Morsi, for example, is viewed as a representative of the right wing of the Brotherhood. He has spoken in favor of barring women and non-Muslims from Egypt's presidency. More radical Salafist groups are guilty of deadly terrorist attacks against Egypt's main non-Muslim minority, Coptic Christians.

Shafiq and other representatives of the old regime have used anti-Islam scaremongering, in the presidential campaign and long before it, to win support against the Brotherhood. They, of course, have no interest at all in guaranteeing equal rights for Copts and women, or standing up for unions.

But while the Islamophobia of the military rulers should be challenged, no one should close their eyes to the Brotherhood's actual politics. And just as more extreme Salafist organizations benefited from the Brotherhood's win in parliamentary elections, a further extension of the Brotherhood's political power would give them greater prominence.

Perhaps most important of all, the Brotherhood has again and again proved unwilling to defend the revolution when the military council lashed out at protesters demanding democratic rights and an end to repression. On the contrary, it has often denounced demonstrators facing the wrath of the regime as "counterrevolutionary"--providing a cover for the SCAF to escalate its violence against activists.

As the RS wrote in a statement issued January 25 of this year on the one-year anniversary of the start of the revolution, one image captured the relationship between the Brotherhood and the SCAF. It was:

the picture of Lt. Gen. Sami Anan [deputy chairman of the SCAF]--his hands stained with the blood of hundreds of martyrs and thousands of injured--in a historic embrace with the Muslim Brotherhood's Muhammad Mursi and Saad al-Qahtani, demonstrating that both sides' fear of the third force (the masses who have an interest in deepening the revolution on a political and social level) is much greater than their differences over how to divide the political spoils between them.

Socialists have always challenged the logic of "lesser evilism"--not out of concern for dogmatic purity, but because of the very real danger that the lesser evil often paves the way for the greater evil. In this case, as in many others in the past, there is nothing to stop Morsi and the Brotherhood, after winning the runoff as the "lesser evil," from reaching an accommodation with the "greater evil."

The Brotherhood has a firm ruling majority in parliament, and potentially, control of the presidency. But how would Morsi assert control over the armed forces? It seems completely plausible that the Brotherhood would rely on a representative of the old apparatus--if not Shafiq, then someone very much like him.

Egypt's presidential election has starkly revealed the threat to democracy, in the form of Ahmed Shafiq. But the movement won't be defended by supporting a party that has embraced neoliberalism and authoritarian politics in its agreements with the military. The key will be independent working class organization that can respond to all threats, in whatever form.

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