The debate about Egypt’s election

June 12, 2012

Alan Maass comments on the discussion about the Egyptian presidential election.

MY ARTICLE about the first round of the Egyptian presidential election--in particular, a part of it that questioned the initial statement of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists (RS) supporting a vote in the runoff election for the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in order to defeat Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate of the old regime--provoked discussion and disagreement among numerous readers.

One of them is my comrade and friend Mostafa Ali, a member of the RS and regular contributor to SocialistWorker.org in interviews and articles, whose response we published earlier this month.

SocialistWorker.org will continue to feature contributions to this debate--the issues involved are complicated, all the more so because of a rapidly changing situation, and deserve a lot of thought. We believe an open discussion on a critical question like this will be beneficial for socialists and radicals in whatever country they are active.

In that spirit, while looking forward to continued debate, I'd like to take up a few points, though not all--especially some issues where I feel there were misconceptions about my article, expressed by Mostafa and by Bill Crane in his contribution, as well as in comments circulating on Facebook and elsewhere.

One objection was that in raising questions about the logic of lesser evilism in supporting a vote for Morsi, I was drawing a comparison to mainstream politics in the U.S. and invoking the socialist position of refusing to support either Democrats or Republicans in American elections.

SW readers may be most familiar with the argument in that context, but the question of whether revolutionaries should vote for the "lesser evil" in order to stop the "greater evil" has emerged in many different settings historically, not just in "a relatively stable liberal democracy."

For example, there is a rich discussion of the issue in Leon Trotsky's writings on Europe in the 1930s--in countries where the democratic system wasn't mature, and with fascism and militarism on the rise. I can't do justice to that discussion here, but in barest form, the question centered on whether socialists should support conservative bourgeois candidates against open fascists in order to stop the counter-revolution. The problem was that the victorious conservatives often embraced the far right--that is, the lesser evil was a stepping-stone to the greater evil.

Much more could be said about whether or not the situation in Egypt is similar, but I at least wanted to note that I was referring to the question of lesser evilism and voting in this broader context.


ALSO AT issue is whether I exaggerated the extent of sentiment in Egypt for boycotting the second round of the presidential vote.

What I reported was that a number of left and liberal organizations had announced that they would not support a vote for Morsi against Shafiq. These groups include the Dignity Party, led by Hamdeen Sabahi, the leading presidential candidate associated with the revolution in the first round, who narrowly came in third to Shafiq--and who is protesting vote fraud that may have cost him a place in the runoff.

Both Sabahi and the socialist candidate Khaled Ali have said they will not endorse a vote for Morsi or Shafiq. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the fourth-place finisher and also considered a candidate of the revolution, held the same position until this past Sunday, when he endorsed a vote for Morsi in the runoff, while continuing to call on the Brotherhood to pledge it would "fulfill the outstanding demands of last year's Tahrir Square uprising."

Sabahi's and Ali's attitudes could change, but as of this writing, they, along with other left and liberal groups, are striving to present a united front that involves making demands and organizing activities to defend and advance the revolution, without necessarily supporting a vote for either candidate in the runoff.

For example, Sabahi, Ali and Aboul Fotouh have all focused on a call for Shafiq to be disqualified from the election on the basis of a law passed by parliament and signed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that excludes top officials from the former Mubarak government from seeking the presidency. Shafiq was Mubarak's last prime minister--but the election commission set the law aside, allowing him to run. A ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court is expected this week.

According to reports of a June 4 meeting involving Sabahi, Ali, Aboul Fotouh and Morsi, everyone represented at the meeting, including the Brotherhood, agreed that the exclusion law must be applied against Shafiq. This demand was a centerpiece of a massive demonstration in Tahrir Square on June 5, involving Sabahi, Aboul Fotouh and Ali, along with the Brotherhood.

The June 5 mobilization was one of many eruptions of protest since the first round of elections on May 20-21. The most important spark for these demonstrations, of course, was the announcement of the acquittals in the trial of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, his sons and his chief henchmen. Huge numbers of people returned to the streets and to Tahrir Square, protesting not only the Mubarak verdict, but the threat of the counter-revolution.

Even before that, the outcome of the first round and the official announcement that the runoff vote would be between Shafiq and Morsi caused bitter outrage. Many of the protests were chiefly against Shafiq and the symbols of his campaign. The media quoted participants who plan to vote for Morsi, whether with enthusiasm or because they want to stop Shafiq.

But others said they rejected a choice limited to Shafiq and Morsi. At a demonstration in Tahrir Square on the night the runoff candidates were confirmed by the regime, chants of "No to the remnant! No to the Brotherhood! The constitution is in the square" rang out. One woman told a reporter from Canada's Real News, "If it's a remnant of the former regime or the Brotherhood: Impossible! Over my dead body! And I'll say it now: I've been here for a year and a half, and I won't leave the square until this country is cleaned out."

Sabahi and Ali have been part of protests against Shafiq. But they are also making demands on the Muslim Brotherhood, without necessarily endorsing a vote for Morsi--for example, a call for the Brotherhood accept a presidential council involving non-Brotherhood leaders for at least a temporary period.

Whether you agree or not with Sabahi's position on the exclusion law or a presidential council, it seems unfair for Mostafa to state that Sabahi has taken an "abstentionist position" that provides "no way forward for his supporters and all revolutionaries." On the contrary, I think the examples above show that Sabahi and Ali, along with other left forces, are attempting to organize against the counter-revolution.

It wasn't necessary to support Morsi to be a part of the inspiring demonstrations against attempts by an emboldened regime to roll back the achievements of last year's revolt. That fits with the history of past struggles against tyranny--mass mobilizations in the streets, as well as in workplaces, on campuses and throughout society, have made the difference, more so than elections.

I think this general point--that the struggle to defeat the counter-revolution can't be viewed only through the lens of the runoff election, with the question reduced to a vote for Morsi as the only way for the revolution to defeat the forces of the old regime--is in keeping with everything the RS in Egypt and SocialistWorker.org in the U.S. has stood for.


I ALSO think Bill Crane is wrong to suggest that my expressing doubts about endorsing a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate means I ignore the "concrete difference" of "whether revolutionaries have the freedom to agitate, educate and organize tomorrow or are carted off to prison as they were under Mubarak." I hope Bill doesn't believe that my article or any on SocialistWorker.org would conclude otherwise. The question is how to defend "the freedom to agitate, educate and organize."

Clearly, there are substantial differences between Morsi and Shafiq. Shafiq is the candidate of the old regime who represents the counter-revolution. His claims to stand for democracy and freedom against the "threat" posed by the Brotherhood are a fraud.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has vacillated, both during the uprising against Mubarak and in the year and a half since. Right now, Morsi and the Brotherhood are mobilizing against Shafiq and the regime. Their political future is at stake, and any supporter of the revolution should welcome united action against the forces of repression. But we shouldn't forget that at equally critical points in the revolution, the Brotherhood has stood with the SCAF, against the demands and protests of those fighting for democracy.

As Bill points out, there is a gap between the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and its rank-and-file supporters--many of whom mobilized wholeheartedly against threats to the revolution. But in an election, Egyptians can't vote for the millions of Brotherhood supporters. Their choice will be whether to cast a vote for Morsi or some other figure from the conservative leadership.

So account must be taken not only of the determination and courage of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in fighting for the revolution, but of the official positions of the Brotherhood--including the fact that it has allied itself, temporarily or not, with the military's rule at the expense of the struggle for democracy, and the very actions of its own members.

The Brotherhood's loss of popularity in recent months is clearly related to questions about its record. For example, after the first round of the election, a man in Alexandria explained why he thought the city voted overwhelmingly for Sabahi over Morsi: "The Brotherhood lost some credibility because of their policy on the constitution. All the drafters were from the Brotherhood. It's like someone greedy to rule. They had shared some with us. But now they want to take it all to themselves. It can't be this way."

And today, there are doubts about whether the Brotherhood is standing by the demand that the exclusion law be used against Shafiq. This would guarantee that the candidate of the old regime would lose. But implementing the law would delay a vote that the Brotherhood hopes to win. For sure, it would likely pit Morsi against Sabahi, with his strong base of support in the cities.

Thus, as Morsi supporter Ahmed Kamal told a U.S. reporter during a smaller mobilization in Tahrir Square last Friday, "We want the elections to continue...We will not wait for the political isolation law. We will carry on with the elections, and Morsi is going to win."

All this just scratches the surface of the discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood and the coming election. I look forward to further views.

And in the meanwhile, I, like every reader of SocialistWorker.org, stand in solidarity with the struggle in Egypt and the fight of the revolution against the counter-revolution--which has inspired all of us with the hope that tyranny can be confronted and defeated.

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