Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Egyptian Voter, Unbowed

A “democracy with fangs.” Mr Anwar Sadat’s unparalleled description of 'his' no-nonsense kind of democracy immediately came to mind this week as the curtain dropped on the second Act of parliamentary elections. In some districts, thugs hired by ruling party candidates attacked voters while police looked on or looked the other way. In others, police actively blocked access to polling stations and skirmished with fearless voters. In this district in Qalyoub (left), determined voters secured a rickety ladder to scale the back wall of a polling station closed off by security forces. An Alexandria voter’s depiction is arresting: “The police are like the Israelis and we are like the Palestinians. We are oppressed.”

Still, the outcome has seen startling gains for the Muslim Brothers (29 seats this stage, 76 overall) and a stinging drubbing for Hosni Mubarak’s party and regime. I doubt anyone predicted the utterly astonishing events unfolding before our eyes these days, though I don’t doubt we’ll soon hear from those who’ll claim they’ve known it all along. Be that as it may, I am amazed by the element of surprise in all this. Most surprising of all is the tenacity and fearlessness of some Egyptian voters. Unfazed by knife- and stick-wielding thugs, intimidating police formations shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, and the sheer logistical hurdles and sense of doubt accompanying the act of voting, ordinary men and women have trudged to polling stations to demand their rights.

There is something deeply noble to me about this lone citizen trying to negotiate her way into this formidably fortified Alexandria polling station. Let me be clear and honest: if I were subject to the levels of intimidation and physical abuse that many voters endured, I would have paused for a very long time before venturing out of the house. Being an intellectual, I would surely overanalyse my fear and craft it into some pseudo-argument for why voting is futile in the first place. But, you see, the vast majority of Egypt’s people don’t have the luxury of overanalysing anything. Their life circumstances are much more pressing. The act of voting for them is a matter of survival and dignity. Says Alexandria voter Mustafa Rizk, “We all hate the government. They treat us like animals. It’s not Islamic the way they treat people. This is why we all want an Islamic government.”

In the same vein, I like Tom Perry’s pithy and perceptive lead, “The deep, filthy puddles in the streets leading to Belkina's polling station remind some villagers to vote against Egypt's rulers when they get there.” It is rather straightforward, is it not? Egyptian voters, forever falsely said to be apathetic, tribal, apolitical, and a thousand other derisive adjectives, are wresting their right to be heard and to demand their basic right to a human standard of living. It is they who are responsible for the Ikhwan’s success; it is they who have wrought the ruling regime’s deafening failure; it is they who constantly upend and confound the hectares of useless print purporting to “analyse” them.

The Ikhwan have done well to take voters and their needs seriously, and voters in turn are returning the favour by braving security phalanxes and demanding their right to be heard (above). Now I am deeply ambivalent about the Ikhwan, but who cares? As my Egyptian politics guru rightly reminds (that’s right, guru), one cannot impugn their fundamental respect for the ordinary Egyptian, and their superior skills at capitalising on and augmenting seemingly puny opportunities. They are not infallible and they are not without schisms, but they are committed. And they are clean.

So before the pundits begin to produce their post-mortems, moaning and wailing about the supposedly sinister rise of the Ikhwan, let’s be honest and clear-headed here. The Egyptian public is not some drugged mass following the siren song of religion. The Egyptian public is suffering from a regime that is aloof and inept at the very best and dangerous and violent the rest of the time. It is not a mystery nor a ‘problem’ how an uncorrupt, moralising, problem-solving, and politically astute organisation has captured the provisional trust of large swathes of that public. The challenge for the Ikhwan as a political phenomenon will be to maintain and truly live up to voters’ trust. No easy task, and not a foregone conclusion.

Good dramas always feature a stirring contest between a roguish villain and a sympathetic underdog. The election’s second Act furnished us just that in the hateful presence of Mustafa al-Fiqqi and the admirable figure of Gamal Heshmat. For background, read the backstory on Fiqqi here. I’m too revolted by him at present to waste precious narrative space on his uncanny resemblance (literal and figurative) to a lowly troll. Heshmat on the other hand is the picture of a true believer. Not a zealot, but an indefatigable striver. In a democratic Egypt, he would be a very successful national politician, with a long and productive career. His secret: a keen sense of constituents’ needs in his native Damanhour. A former Nasserist, Heshmat is among the new breed of Ikhwan for whom Islamist sermonising works hand in glove with age-old constituency service. Simple as that. The man is intelligent, affable, and accessible. Having the repulsive Fiqqi “run” against Heshmat on his home turf of Damanhour must go down as one of the most colossally stupid ideas in contemporary Egyptian political history. I repeat: the author of the idea deserves special plaudits for political inanity and profoundly inept strategic planning.

Heshmat and his supporters campaigned intensely. By contrast, the London-loving Fiqqi made a few perfunctory rounds, letting it be known that he’s the “presidency’s candidate.” As expected, on November 20, Damanhouris said Toz. They braved security forces' determined blocking of roads to polling stations (above) to return their man, buoyed by the government's unjust ousting of him from parliament in 2003. That’s the beauty of Egyptians at election time, they say Toz loud and clear to anyone who will listen. Heshmat put Fiqqi in the shade, with a staggering 24,611 votes to Fiqqi’s 8,606. In an exact replay of the Doqqi district fiasco, presiding legal officers panicked and whispered of the dire consequences of a Fiqqi defeat. Presidential representatives monitored the vote count by mobile phone, sending desperate entreaties on the importance of returning Fiqqi as chair of the Foreign Affairs committee in parliament at this “critical time for Egypt,” or some such hogwash. In a flagrant bait-and-switch, after a vote count with absolutely no traces of ambiguity, legal officers announced Fiqqi’s victory and Heshmat’s defeat.

The plot thickens when a fascinating deus ex machina swoops down on the scene, in the guise of an upstanding legal officer by the name of Noha al-Zeiny. She decides to tell the truth regardless of the consequences, and hands over her candid testimony to al-Misri al-Youm, where it’s published on Thursday (full text here). “I use this forum to bear witness to what I learned, of the falsifying of election results in the first district in Damanhour,” she writes, “And I call on those who witnessed the incident to offer up their testimony as well. One of them said to me afterwards that he could not sleep after what happened.” The irony of ironies is that al-Zeiny is not even a sitting judge but a high-ranking member of the Administrative Prosecution, legal officers the government expressly counted on to facilitate its election doctoring.

What will the third Act bring? We must wait and see. But I know one thing for certain. It will usher in more surprises, made by human beings for whom voting is an act of defiance, and perhaps even a matter of honour. This disabled Qalyoub man is being assisted to a polling station to vote on November 26. A Tanta voter’s measured expression of outrage to al-Jazeera haunts me: “Security is preventing all the citizens from entering the polling stations, as you can see. Is this right? Does the president of the republic agree to this? Let him call the supervisor of the polling station to let people in, or then let us go home!”

*Photos from AP, AFP, Reuters.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Four Myths About Elections

Ahhhhh, election season again. Egypt’s parliamentary poll started on Wednesday, the eighth since Mr Anwar Sadat oh-so-graciously decided to return to multiparty politics back in 1976. It was a manoeuvre he would later deeply regret, especially when parliamentary opposition quickly dovetailed with paraparliamentary protest. This year’s elections are neither a historic turning point nor a meaningless routine, but an exercise festooned with uncertainties (yes, festooned). Three, to be exact. First, there’s a considerable uncertainty of outcome. I fail to see how sundry observers are arriving at their predictions of 100 opposition deputies being elected, or 50, or 75, or a middling NDP victory, or a comfortable NDP victory, or any of the other estimates circulating about with such false authority. An NDP majority is assured but beyond that, the final election results hinge on far too many shifting circumstances and naturally ephemeral alliances. Hazarding a forecast is rather foolish, methinks, mish keda walla eh?

Second, the process is even more wildly unpredictable. Here are just some of the axes of uncertainty: How much, where, when, and in what ways will the government wield its repression? What sorts of alliances will be struck, in which districts, among which candidates, and on what terms? What sorts of irregularities will prevail, how much, and where? What kinds of issues will surface in the raucous process that is Egyptian elections? Will foreign parties exert different kinds of pressure on the regime during different stages? All of these and more are key ingredients in the process, and I for one have no idea how they’ll interact or what outcomes they’ll produce. Initial reports from the first round of the first phase of voting brim with diverse irregularities that vary from district to district, with no clear trends or patterns yet emerging.

Third and most intriguing to me is one factor almost entirely absent from the presidential selection charade of September: the voting public. Constituents. Electors. Clients. The kinds of relationships forged between candidates and constituencies has always been a key motif in every Egyptian election story. Today, it seems obvious to the point of banality to note that each of the 222 districts has a different and peculiar dynamic. Voters are mobilised in some districts more than others, cleave around certain issues more than others, and engage at certain phases of the election process more than others. I find it silly and ignorant to generalise about the “tendencies” of all Egyptian voters. Like their counterparts the world over, they are a variegated, diverse lot. They can neither be dismissed nor reduced to some uniform mass.

Put the three uncertainties together, add a collection of intensely ambitious, cutthroat politicians masquerading as a coherent party (NDP), sprinkle in a disciplined and electorally astute challenger (Ikhwan) and a somewhat rejuvenated official opposition, factor in new movements spawning new candidates (Kifaya, Freedom Now), take account of an unusually charged political atmosphere with acute international interest in Egypt, remember the ever-present prospect of violence, and what do you get? Quite the mulukhiyya, with plenty of fried garlic (to make it interesting). But whereas real, delicious mulukhiyya for some reason makes me intensely sleepy, I’m having no trouble staying wide awake for this election mélange.

But alas, I can’t enjoy my election mulukhiyya in peace. There are some astonishingly bad ideas flying about, and they’re annoying me. Of course, they’re the very same myths that surface every time an election rolls around, and they will surely surface again during the next election, perhaps with some tweaking. Come to think of it, they’re all of a piece with those other myths that persist even as reality changes and history says otherwise: Egyptians are passive, apathetic, quixotic, unready for democracy, unorganised, and just an all-round sorry lot. As the elections get underway, I’m especially suspicious of the following hackneyed tropes.

The elections are meaningless carnivals that burnish the regime’s image in front of the khawagaat. This alarmingly reductive claim is routinely resuscitated to explain anything and everything about Egyptian politics, and therefore of course it explains nothing. Pick up any newspaper and you’ll see this statement somewhere on one of the pages. The obvious problem is that any feature of Egyptian politics can be explained away as designed for foreign consumption or instigated by foreign pressure. Reality, fortunately, is much more intricate. All elections since 1976 are products of intense bargaining between the regime and its various domestic contenders. The khawagaat observe, but have they ever changed the regime’s behaviour on any aspect of an election?

If elections are mere props, why would government legal tailors incessantly tinker with different election systems and rules to weaken and fragment the opposition? The 1976, 1979, 1984, and 1987 elections each operated according to different rules because the government of the day was always responding to immediate and real domestic challenges. Remember the 1976 elections. The 24% representation of independents and opposition proved too irksome for Sadat, who could not stand the mere handful of boisterous deputies using parliament as a platform to denounce and criticise him. Men such as Mumtaz Nassar, Adel Eid, Kamal Ahmed (above), Mahmoud al-Qadi, and Abul Ezz al-Hariri infuriated and disturbed Sadat. So he got rid of them.

After a sham plebiscite, he dissolved parliament and called new elections in 1979, and for good measure added a 30-seat quota for women to look progressive. Sure enough, representation of independents and the opposition dropped to 12.2%. Active rigging and violence prevented the return of all Sadat critics save one: the venerable ex-judge Mumtaz Nassar, whose staunch partisans in the south guarded ballot boxes by force of arms until a phone call from Sadat himself instructed security forces to back off. The khawagaat did not lift a finger. Remember, they were too busy applauding Sadat as a visionary, courageous statesman for signing Camp David. What’s a little electoral rigging and violence at home, hhmmm?

The 1984 and 1987 parliaments were similar products of intense domestic wrangles. Both were dissolved after the Supreme Constitutional Court invalidated the electoral rules on which they were elected. How did the SCC get into the act? Because energetic candidates like Kamal Khaled appealed to the courts to challenge electoral laws that discriminated against independents. When the government blatantly doctored the 1990 election law, the Egyptian opposition achieved an unprecedented amount of coordination and boycotted the vote, save for the Tagammu’ and the Nasserists.

The 1995 vote was the bloodiest in Egyptian electoral history, with 60 dead and hundreds wounded, and the lowest ever opposition and independent representation: 9.6%. Why was it so violent? Hosni Mubarak was rattled by the attempt on his life in Addis Ababa and worried by the violent Islamists in the south. He turned on the Ikhwan, trying them before military tribunals to make sure their best and brightest didn’t run in elections. So, only one Islamist made it into the 1995 parliament: Ali Fath al-Bab, independent Islamist unaffiliated with the Brothers but close to the Labour Party. Once again, was the regime responding to domestic or foreign pressure?

This story would be incomplete without mentioning a critical actor: Egyptian courts. Since 1984, disgruntled candidates have actively turned to the judiciary to invalidate election rules and results. The Supreme Constitutional Court twice declared election laws unconstitutional (in 1987 and 1990) and in 2000 mandated full election supervision, spurred each time by aggrieved independent candidates. The Court of Cassation (CC) and the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) both have the power to invalidate election procedures and call for new elections. There are hundreds upon hundreds of CC reports and SAC rulings that do just that, but the devilish Article 93 of the Constitution renders the CC’s reports non-binding, while countless rulings of the SAC are evaded and/or selectively applied.

But the point is, elections have become quite the headache for the regime, thanks to some citizens taking them very seriously, the same process that transpired with the presidential vote. This year, in August and November, administrative courts ruled in favour of citizen election monitoring in both the presidential and the parliamentary polls. One intriguing novelty in court involvement came on November 6, when the administrative court threw out a suit challenging the Ikhwan’s use of their 1987 slogan, “Islam is the Solution.” This reflected the unexpected controversy over the slogan, with the Ikhwan aggressively (and rather defensively) defending their choice and critics complaining of cynical evocation of religion to garner votes. The Ikhwan even have a little ditty to go with the slogan, though the lyrics leave much to be desired.

Elections may also be for domestic consumption, but they don’t fundamentally alter the regime’s power. Er, no. I was dismayed to read the usually sharp Abdel Halim Qandil express this unsubtle view recently, which seems widely shared. But elections are a very dangerous exercise, not because they threaten the regime’s existence, but because they contain a nucleus of competition. No one who knows anything about elections anywhere will fail to appreciate the consequences of even a sliver of competition. Each of the 1976, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1995, and 2000 elections had wildly different implications for the regime, none of them inconsequential, some of them quite grave. Why else would both Sadat and successor invest enormous effort in micro-managing polls and deploy all the resources of the state to ensure a favourable outcome?

The competitive logic of elections induces microscopic yet significant changes in the regime’s structure on at least two levels: the state structure, and the structure of the NDP. Take the first. We all know how centralized Egypt has become under Hosni Mubarak, with a direct line running from the president to the provincial governor (muhafiz) to the district police station (nuqtat al-markaz) to the village ‘umda. All are part of a single, tight-knit chain of command that was further tightened in 1994 when ‘umdas became appointed rather than elected. Provincial and municipal councils (al-magalis al-mahaliyya) are also critical institutions of centralised state control; they enjoy absolutely no oversight powers nor any appreciable role in allocating resources at the local level. Instead, they are repositories of state control, to be drawn upon when necessary. The rest of the time, they serve as arenas for turf battles and ego wars between aspiring government hangers-on.

At election time, all these apparatuses are intensively mobilised to ensure the victory of NDP candidates. With a word from the muhafiz, answering to the Interior Minister in Cairo, all markaz police stations work round the clock, hiring local toughs to disrupt independent and opposition candidates’ campaigns, arresting supporters of opposition candidates on the eve of election day, luring, confusing or intimidating opposition voters, and spreading rumours. Provincial and municipal council members do their bit as well, campaigning aggressively for their ruling party patrons and coordinating with markaz police. Markaz police instruct the village 'umda to threaten his village folk with detention if they vote for independent/opposition candidates. The 'umda complies on pain of losing his headship.

In return for these services, the centre holds out the prospect of post-election rewards and inducements. Here is where the impact of elections on the structure of state power is blatantly obvious. It is no coincidence that muhafiz appointments and other local governmental reshuffles immediately follow parliamentary elections. Let’s take one concrete example of this dynamic from this year: Kafr al-Shaykh muhafiz Salah Salama. Salama was until recently the head of State Security Intelligence (Mabaheth Amn al-Dawla). He was removed from his post and posted to Kafr al-Shaykh due to serious animosity between him and Interior Minister Habib al-Adli. Salama is an ambitious little rogue, with designs on the ministerial portfolio. He has reportedly delighted in Adli’s misfortunes (the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings in July, the widely condemned attacks on Kifaya protestors in May and July), and will do everything in his power to help NDP candidates in his province. His strategy is to please the big bosses and deliver Kafr al-Shaykh so that they’ll reciprocate and appoint him minister.

Multiply this single dynamic a hundredfold in a hundred different state nooks, from the muhafiz all the way down to the street-level clerk and the two-bit member of the municipal council, and you begin to see just how important parliamentary elections are to the distribution and turnover of personnel within the government structure. This can affect the regime’s power in many different and often contradictory ways. But let’s not pretend that elections matter little for the regime’s power.

Let’s take the second structure: the very National, very very Democratic, very storied Party (NDP). The competitive dynamic of elections aggravates the rumblings always raging beneath the surface stolidity of the NDP. That behemoth is of course not a party at all but a vast praetorian network studded with ruthlessly ambitious mercenaries who harbour loyalty to nothing other than their own advancement. Elections are the moment when the NDP’s chaotic structure is laid bare for all to see, as politicos manoeuvre for official party candidacy and all the perks it entails. Remember that the 2000 phenomenon of momentarily defecting NDP members who re-joined the party after elections led to a sequence of events that culminated in the rise of Gamal Mubarak. Could there be any clearer proof of elections directly impinging on the power of the regime? Or this year’s successful operation to unseat the lone Ayman Nour from his perch in Bab al-Sha’riyya. Is the regime really that threatened by a lone political maverick?

As with 2000, this year the regime cherry-picked its candidates, 438 men and a whopping six women (the true face of Suzanne Mubarak’s contrived and utterly phony commitment to women’s empowerment). The government tried to appease hundreds of other equally ambitious contenders with promises of endorsement in the 2006 municipal elections and sundry state appointments. But as we know, hell hath no fury like an NDP hanger-on scorned; the rejects decided to run as independents. Already, violence has erupted between partisans of official NDP candidates and those spurned by the NDP, in Buhayra province to be exact. Boulaq has seen skirmishes of a different intra-party stripe, between NDP businessman and presidential crony Mohamed al-Mas’oud and former Amn al-Dawla officer and Interior Minister confidant Badr al-Qadi.

Election times thus brim with intense intra-party and intra-regime intrigues on a scale that would have flummoxed even the man who wrote the book on the arts of political conniver. Poor Niccolo Machiavelli seems positively angelic compared to our formidable Kamal al-Shazli, for example, the über powerbroker and no doubt Egypt’s premier political survivor. For many, al-Shazli is the emblem of political corruption in Egypt, but why bicker over details, I say? al-Shazli is a specimen to behold, especially during election time, when all his stupendous fixing skills are brought to bear. Like Machiavelli’s superior strategist, our man Shazli has never met a crisis he couldn’t surmount, seamlessly flitting between Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union to Sadat’s Egypt Arab Socialist Platform to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, all the while graduating from cheap and positively gauche suits to impeccably tailored and exquisitely coloured outfits. I must stress that this photo (above) of him amidst the Bagour faithful fails to do justice to his considerable sartorial gifts.

But alas, chinks marred al-Shazli’s armour in 2000, when his men garnered only 38% of parliamentary seats. Suddenly, whispers about his supposedly diminished powers circulated with a vengeance within the political class. The man can no longer deliver, murmured the gossipers. He’s losing his touch, his days are numbered, yapped the tongue-waggers. The corruption is out in the open, muttered the naysayers. Again this year, the same fevered speculation is surfacing about our man’s supposedly plummeting fortunes. I for one prefer to reserve judgement until quite some time after the elections. But I can’t help wondering, quo vadis, Kimo??

What’s certain is that internal NDP intrigue has nothing to do with all that silly jabberwocky about the reformist Gamal guard and the recalcitrant old guard. What’s going on in the NDP is textbook factionalism and ruthless contests for power, I care not a whit for what the gloss de jour is. The infighting within the state patronage machine doesn’t line up on old guard-new guard lines, but instead differently constituted factions that each comprise both ostensible old guarders and members of Gamal’s group. The key propellant is individual members’ personal ambitions to work their way up the hierarchy, tether themselves to powerful patrons, outdo long time competitors, or pre-empt rising threats.

Take the case of the Qasr al-Nil district, where the runoff will see fevered competition between Gamal crony Hossam Badrawi and former Policies Secretariat (PS) hobnobber Hisham Mustafa Khalil, son of the NDP’s vice-president Mustafa Khalil. The younger Khalil was incensed that Badrawi was handpicked over him, so he dramatically resigned from the PS, shrugged off concerted pressures to withdraw from the race, and showered benefits on residents of Ma’rouf and Maspero, two very poor enclaves amidst the aristocratic and well-heeled clientele of Qasr al-Nil. To make it even more delicious, there are rumours that our man Shazli is tacitly backing Khalil. I quiver with anticipation at the outcome of these and so many other intramural battles. But I positively howled with laughter when I read Alieddine Hilal’s fantastic remarks on the NDP. The great prevaricator would have us believe that it’s a real party, with internal discipline and—hold your breath—an ethics committee! But let us not be too judgemental. Mr Hilal is simply trying to maintain his position as the head bootlicker among lesser bootlickers. Let us leave him to ply his trade in peace, shall we?

A services deputy (na’ib al-khadamat) is bad but a political deputy (na’ib al-siyasi) is good. This extremely common idea was recently expressed by another NDP toady, Abdel Moneim Said in the October 24 al-Ahram. As per usual, Said is merely packaging ambient notions; as a pen-for-hire, he is incapable of independent thought. This idea is based on the stereotype of the politically ignorant representative, shuttling from ministry to ministry to secure favours for his district. The opposite is the supposedly dignified and educated senator, participating intelligently in parliamentary discussions and commanding the intricacies of legislation. I have no idea where this dichotomy originates, perhaps in an idealisation or reflexive veneration of “first world” systems, the better to contrast them to dysfunctional and irrational mechanisms in the “third world.”

Being a “services deputy” is a curse word that everyone likes to avoid. However, let’s get off our high horses for a moment and remember an inescapable fact: to be a parliamentary deputy anywhere in the world partially means to oversee the flow of public resources into your district. Consider the magnified urgency of service delivery when the state of public services is abysmal and the only way citizens can secure public goods is to petition their deputies. This is the case in Egypt, when basic survival for the majority of residents is a project fraught with daily battles. Since, as we’ve seen, local representative assemblies are completely beholden to top-down commands and have no control over distributing resources, the only marginally credible potential problem-solvers are deputies in parliament.

As every Egyptian MP will confirm, the two largest needs of any district are petitions for state-funded medical care and job requests. Ordinary Egyptians cannot afford the skyrocketing cost of even basic surgeries and operations. They appeal to their deputy for help because there is no one else to turn to. He makes his way to the Health Ministry and negotiates with the Minister for X number of government-funded operations per month for district residents. He then makes the rounds of other ministries, negotiating to secure job opportunities for his constituents. This is how the typical Egyptian deputy spends his day; a conscientious one who serves his district, that is. When and why did this become a flaw? It baffles me that we can continue to pretend that service delivery is a loathsome activity when we know full well that the state has completely given up on providing basic services.

More serious is the supposed dichotomy between a politically unsophisticated benefit-deliverer and some brilliant legislator. To be sure, the NDP is full of both ignoramuses and ruthless politicos who’ve never done a thing for their constituents except buy their vote on election day. But many successful opposition and independent MPs combine both political acumen and loyal service delivery to districts. The Ikhwan MPs are especially interesting and significant in this regard. They are committed local problem-solvers: arranging for potable water, edible bread, functioning sewage systems, regular sanitation removal, and other human basics that most of Egypt’s denizens lack entirely. They do this by shuttling from ministry to ministry and municipal hall to municipal hall, negotiating incessantly. But they are also active and involved in reviewing and proposing legislation. Other independents and opposition deputies do the same. Think of al-Badri Farghali, Kamal Ahmed, Akram al-Shaer, Hamdeen Sabahy, to name but a few. Even the NDP does not lack for an occasional conscientious deputy who possesses both a constituent support base and political acumen: think of al-Nuzha’s longtime incumbent and NDP stalwart Hamdi al-Sayed.

Egyptians are apathetic and don’t care to vote. This is the mother of all myths, unthinkingly parroted so many times by so many people that it’s sickening. Apathy is an atrocious little weasel word, invoked by the lazy and ignorant to “explain” that which they do not understand, and in the process feel all superior about themselves. Please pause for a second and think this one through. To judge “apathy,” one would have to clamber into people’s brains and look inside, now wouldn't one? Short of that, how do we really gauge whether someone is apathetic or not? I’d love to know. That Egyptians don’t care to vote is as clear as day, but whence comes the notion that this is due to “apathy”?

How can we really know what Egyptians are thinking or feeling about politics? I don’t trust any polling outfit in this country, such as they are, so even if pollsters went around door to door asking people how they feel about politics, that would never capture Egyptians’ complex mixture of extreme astuteness about and extreme distrust of politics. Again, why on earth would anyone package this under the simpleton rubric of ‘apathy’? That Egyptians distrust or even hate their politicians is one thing, that they are apathetic is to claim something else entirely. The interesting facts to learn are not why Egyptians don’t vote in an often violent and rigged process, but what they do to evade, surmount, or work with this distorted reality.

One highly underappreciated way to gauge this is to observe the details of candidate-constituent links in different constituencies at different stages of the vote. Such linkages can be clientelistic, charismatic, or programmatic. They can be all three at the same time. If they’re purely clientelistic, then we shouldn’t moan and wail about it but try to understand the nature of the relationship. Far from evincing apathy, many Egyptians seem exceptionally mobilised during election time, even if in purely clientelistic terms. One of my favourite examples of crafty clientelism comes from the January 3, 1950 general elections, when fellahin openly auctioned their votes to the highest bidder! Today, the Hawamdiyya district in Giza is renowned as the home of the one-term candidate, since crafty citizen-clients promptly vote out all candidates who fail to deliver basic services, robbing them of coveted incumbency. Can ‘apathy’ even begin to explain the local intricacies of Hawamdiyya and its cognates across Egypt?

Election time offers opportunities for candidates to interact with and woo district residents. Vote-buying surely occurs, as preliminary accounts of the first round of voting are already making clear. But other ties are also possible. Residents may identify with an underdog or someone who stands up to rotten local bosses. Residents may be attracted by the appeal of a particular idea, e.g. “Islam is the Solution.” Residents may simply vote for one candidate to spite or protest against another. Even if candidates run entirely quixotic campaigns, they help ordinary Egyptians lay some claim to public politics, even if only fleetingly.

This is why the campaigns of organic intellectuals such as Dr. Ahmad Abdalla (Ayn al-Sira), Kamal Abu Eita (Boulaq), Kamal Khalil (Imbaba), Mona Makram Ebeid (Shubra), Magdi Hussein (Manyal), and Muhammad al-Ashqar (Giza) are so important, despite the fact they all lost. The same for savvy politico Montasser al-Zayat (Boulaq, left), who’s adept at pressing the flesh and appealing to the downtrodden. The short-lived yet significant campaigns of all of these people offer meaningful, dignified interactions for both candidates and constituents, something that we see precious little of in Egypt today. At the very least, such interactions allow ordinary people a chance to air their grievances. At most, they build relationships that are then reactivated at the next round of elections five years down the line. Unless of course you’re the repulsive Mustafa Bakri, who’s failed repeatedly to capture the confidence of voters, and who I wholeheartedly hope fails again in the run-off.

Bird's Eye

When we leave behind the fascinating details and try to grasp broader patterns, I like to think that the elections are one instalment in a very long epic, the drama of ordinary Egyptians’ struggle to gain control over the conditions of their own existence. Meaning: having a say in how their lives are governed. Gaining a foothold in the power structure. Most of the time, the great majority of Egyptians are subject to forces beyond their control. They accommodate and adjust, but they rarely initiate.

Elections are episodes when the tables are turned, if only for a spell. Even the most stalwart government kingpin relies on humble commoners to return him to the ranks of the plumed and powerful. In that exchange, so fraught with unexpected possibilities, commoners get a taste of their own importance. They have sometimes made choices between bad and less bad bosses, sometimes taken heroic stances in support of quixotic challengers, and sometimes aligned themselves with powerful incumbents. If this happens at least some of the time in some election districts every five years, then I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would describe this as “apathy.”

Elections are those fleeting moments when power needs to certify itself again by popular mandate. The rich and powerful, outfitted awkwardly in their ridiculous regalia and outlandish symbols, must out of necessity seek the endorsement of those who possess nothing. I would not dare forecast the outcome of this paradoxical process. I prefer to observe, and to listen to the blind sage as he sings, “Ya Masr ‘oomi w’sheddi al-hayl” (Get up, Egypt, show your mettle).

*All photos from AP, Reuters, al-Ahram Weekly.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


On Wednesday October 26, Alexandrian blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman was taken from his home and detained by State Security agents (Amn al-Dawla). Bloggers who visited his family report that the family believes Abdel Karim's political opinions and writings for several outlets, including Copts United, are behind the arrest. Suleiman is a 21-year-old law student at al-Azhar University (Damanhour campus). He lives in the Muharram Bek neighborhood that witnessed rioting by 5,000 Muslims outside the Mar Girgis Church on Oct. 21, resulting in three deaths and more than 100 wounded. Security forces detained 100-some rioters but recently released many of them.

As is now well known, the crowds were protesting a play performed at the church two years ago that allegedly insults Islam. The play was recently circulated via CD/DVD by unknown parties, though theories abound as to who could be behind it. Stories point the finger at the Ikhwan, competition between rival NDP candidates, and long-festering social tensions. Observers disagree on whether the violence was election-related, but all agree that the government's purely security-centric approach to sectarian relations is blatantly inadequate.

Abdel Karim maintains a blog, but his family could not say whether this is relevant to the arrest. Abdel Karim's brother speculated that his arrest may be instigated by local "fundamentalists" with whom Abdel Karim apparently has tense relations. It remains to be seen whether he has been "preventively detained" for the usual 15-day chunks and whether he will be formally charged by State Security Prosecution. The first few days (sometimes weeks) of a detention are always the murkiest, with Amn al-Dawla deliberately keeping everyone in the dark to instill fear and confusion. The causes of Karim's detention thus remain entirely unclear. Did neighborhood toughs instigate the police to arrest him? Are security agents punishing Abdel Karim for his writings? Why did his family appear to be unconcerned with locating his whereabouts?

Given these and many more questions, it seems to me counterproductive to traffic in unsubstantiated theories and rumours, or to reflexively sensationalise this as an Iranian-style 'crackdown on bloggers,' or to bicker about whether Abdel Karim's views are "representative" or worth defending. This is basic: a person's views are never the issue when it comes to arbitrary and unlawful detention. The issue is security agents' behaviour, plain and simple. Therefore, I will not comment here on what I think of Abdel Karim's writings; what I or anyone else thinks is not relevant, with due respect. It is much more important now to monitor the situation closely and work to obtain concrete information from State Security, as Egypt's human rights groups have always done in these situations.