These are no ordinary
presidential elections that we’re about to experience in two weeks, and not just
because they’re the first real competition for the top job. They’re
extraordinary because they’re being held in the shadow of an American-backed
military junta. So instead of delving into exciting, substantive debates about
the presidential candidates’ comparative strengths and weaknesses, or bickering
over their relative electoral fortunes, we first have to deal with the higher-order
problem of presidential elections under military rule.
Like any stubborn oligarchy, SCAF
and their foreign patrons won’t simply step aside and allow an elected
president to exercise real power. I think their game plan is to preside over a new
and improved form of elite rule where the president and parliament are
popularly elected with great fanfare, but SCAF retains power over three
reserved domains: foreign policy, economic policy, and domestic policing.
It’s a grim prognosis, but it
doesn’t warrant defeatism, or the lazy assumption that SCAF pulls all the
strings and we’re all hapless bit players in a dirty Machiavellian game.
Instead, this is the latest and perhaps most exciting chapter in Egypt’s
revolutionary drama, the struggle to replace rule by the few with rule by the
The Big Fight
between Oligarchy and Democracy
Since February 11, 2011, every
corner of Egypt
has been locked in a power struggle between bottom-up self rule and the attempt
to re-impose oligarchic control. In every government department, university faculty, shop floor, and far-flung governorate, the forces of the ancien regime
have been desperately trying to reimpose old hierarchies. In some sites, the
revolution has won and in others the counter-revolution reigns supreme.
Control over parliament is testament
to this mixed picture. The people delivered a resounding defeat to the noxious
feloul, replacing them with more broadly representative, new social forces that
were locked out of parliament for decades. But the majority Ikhwan and Salafi
deputies poured icy water on revolutionary aspirations, opting for a moderate
approach rather than building creative links with extra-parliamentary groups.
Then again, that isn’t so
surprising since parliaments aren’t hospitable places for revolutionary
politics, especially if they operate under the watchful eyes of greedy juntas (and
if the parliamentary leadership shares the oligarchic worldview of the military
For SCAF and its American
enablers, the fifteen months since the uprising have been an object lesson in
the dangers of democracy. In every crucial domain, revolutionary action
threatens sacred hierarchies. Relations with Egypt’s two regional allies
experienced their greatest turbulence in decades when the people stormed the
Israeli embassy, eventually forcing it to relocate, and surrounded the Saudi
embassy, prompting its ambassador to leave in a huff. In the economic domain,
the people have had the temerity to weigh in on matters of high state policy, under
the subversive notion that “individuals should be involved in how the country
is run,” as the great Wael Khalil put it.
As for the vast policing
apparatus that ruled the population for 30 years, the people have simply
refused to let it reconstruct itself again. After its initial devastating
defeat on January 28, 2011 and citizens’ storming of State Security
headquarters in March, the policing apparatus has been out of order. The SCAF
now resorts to military police and the arming of plainclothed muscle boys to
kill and maim peaceful protestors, and has so far evaded popular demands for
civilian control over the police force.
If the SCAF continues to rule
directly, it risks a very dangerous escalation of these cascading popular invasions
of all its reserved domains. The Abbassiyya demonstration and sit-in outside
the Ministry of Defense is simply the tangible physical embodiment of this
unstoppable popular encroachment.
The presidential elections
are thus a life raft, enabling the SCAF to take all the credit for organizing a
free and fair poll. They can then let the elected president be the fall guy,
and quietly wall off their key policy domains from further democratic meddling.
This wouldn’t be the first
time that oligarchy retains the levers of power under a veneer of democracy.
Authoritarians have always found ways to limit the power of elected
institutions, not by the crude methods of election rigging alone but the trickier
means of removing certain policy areas from their jurisdiction.
Who’s up to the
But it’s not a stable formula.
Even if the SCAF and their American friends get their best-case scenario and an
anti-revolution man fills the office, problems abound. This “wise” president
will be left to deal with a messy country and its rambunctious people, while
SCAF gets full control over the sacred policy trio: foreign affairs, key
economic decisions, and the domestic security sector. But does anyone really
believe that the wise man will pacify a populace that now knows its own
If a popularly-chosen
renegade captures the most powerful state institution, then a real struggle for
power will begin. An outsider president will be a huge headache for the
oligarchs, because he won’t accept sitting duck status. He may get it into his
head to whip up popular support, purge the bureaucracy, forge an alliance with
parliament, and use this as a launching pad for a big fight with SCAF over
democratic control of the three policy domains.
The conditions are there for
such a confrontation. Not only is the public fed up with SCAF’s repeated
killing of peaceful protestors, but there’s growing public awareness that the
generals fancy themselves a caste of mandarins standing above the state. They
themselves like to remind us of this periodically, while simultaneously using a
paternalist-nationalist rhetoric that they’re selfless guardians of the
republic. But thanks to the vigilance of citizen watchdogs, we have a very good
understanding of how they hoard public resources for their exclusive gain.
A revolutionary president thus
won’t have to convince the public that SCAF is a bunch of shady characters. He
just has to create the conditions for a viable, sustained confrontation, working
against the military myth-making machine that attempts to invoke sanctity around
a caste of kleptocrats.
The wise man’s campaign ad says “we’re up to the challenge,” but the only challenge he faces is
getting Egyptians to believe his preposterous sales pitch. There are only two
candidates up to the real challenge of wresting executive power from the
generals and subjecting them to public accountability. I love the fact that
they both started their political careers on the same day in the same room
(February 2, 1977), by standing up to a dictator.
I should add that neither
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh nor Hamdeen Sabahy are naïve radicals who will go
after SCAF from day one. I think they’re very fine politicians and real leaders
who will know how and when to pick their battles; what to prioritize; how to
seize opportunities; and how to learn from mistakes. We have no precedent for a
democratically-elected pro-revolution president, but I think either of them is
a very good start, with Aboul Fotouh possessing greater chances of winning than
A Real Choice
Even if the new Egyptian presidency
ends up being a hamstrung institution, popularly-elected but unable to do much,
it’s remarkable that these elections do offer a choice between real
alternatives. The alternatives aren’t religious rule and “modernity,” as the
wise man would have it, but reconstructed authoritarian rule versus rule by the
The first option is
represented by a middling insider trying to sell himself as an exceptional statesman,
and the second is embodied in two talented outsiders propelled by the hopes of
millions of people for a fairer, more democratic society. Each alternative has
a substantial group of adherents on the ground, neither of which can be
There is a third option: the
Muslim Brothers. They’re neither consummate insiders nor total outsiders, occupying
a hazy middle ground all their own from which they’re mulling their next move
on how to become the new insiders.
At a slightly more abstract
level, the presidential elections are a fight between two rival doctrines: the age-old
and still-powerful doctrine of contempt for and fear of the demos, and the
insurgent idea that Egyptians have the right and the capacity to rule themselves,
without elite trusteeship, military guardianship, or foreign domination.