The left may not like the results of the first round of voting in Egypt’s presidential election, but the elite won’t like it either, says John Rees
Egypt has only completed one of the two rounds of its Presidential election process but we can already declare the result: the Egyptian elite have lost.
This is not the view of most Egyptians and not the view of most Egyptian revolutionaries. For them the result leaves a ‘nighmare senario’ in the second round of voting next month, when Ahmed Shafiq from the Mubarak regime will face Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi.
Shafiq, an air-force commander who was overthrown by demonstrations in Tahrir after he became Mubarak’s final Prime Minister, won 23 percent of the vote. He is the embodiment of the Egyptian term ‘feloul’, meaning a ‘remnant’ of the Mubarak regime. Morsi got 29 percent, according to exit polls.
Many of the revolutions supporters are saying, whatever the outcome of the second round vote between these two, this is the end of the revolution because Shafiq is an enemy of the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood have been opposed to the further development of the revolution since Mubarak fell.
But things are not so simple.
Firstly, the electoral process is only semi-legitimate. Only 40 percent of the electorate voted. Morsi only got 10 percent of the votes of those eligible to vote. It was the same in the earlier Parliamentary elections.
These are catastrophically low figures for the first free elections after the fall of the dictatorship. The TV pictures of Egyptians queuing to vote give the impression that this election was like the first post-Apartheid election in South Africa. But there is all the difference in the world between the two. In the South African elections there was a massive turnout and the main, legitimate, long-standing liberation organistion, the ANC, won a landslide.
In Egypt there is not only a low turnout but no universally accepted legitimate organisation that represents the revolution. Of course this is a problem for the revolution, but it is an even bigger problem for those in the elite who want a smooth transition to a stable capitalist democracy.
The Egyptian Parliament is already failing because it lacks legitimacy. Its attempt to agree a process for writing a new constitution simply fell apart, and it is already widely regarded as failing to deal with Egypt’s pressing political and economic crisis.
The new President will have the same problems, but worse. For a start, the turnout in the second round of voting is unlikely to rise, and may fall.
If Ahmed Shafiq wins he will, in effect, be a minority President despite the first past the post run off. Every section of the revolution, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the far left, will see him as the military junta’s continuity candidate. And they will be right because Shafiq will not want to or be able to rule without the mailed fist of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) supporting him.
If Morsi wins, which many will see as the lesser evil, the deligitimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood will accelerate. It was damaged when the Brotherhood supported SCAF in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. It was further damaged when they won the majority in Parliament but then did nothing with it. It will be damaged even further if they win the Presidency in these circumstances.
An indication of the potential for the left can be seen in the vote for Hamdeen Sabahy, the socialist and Nasserist candidate, a stalwart of the Cairo anti-war Conferences, and a speaker on the 15th February 2003 Stop the War demonstration in London. He came a close third in the first round. Critically he also came top of the poll in Cairo and Alexandria. Abul-Fotouh, a liberal Muslim figure whose programme was also written by socialists from the Cairo Conference, also gained considerable support.
Most importantly the ripples of the revolution are still spreading deep into Egyptian society, as Jack Shenker reported in an excellent Guardian piece this week. Shenker makes two key points. The first is that ‘The Islamist/secularist divide gets all the attention and is undoubtedly important – but it's also only one faultline among many, and a convenient one to concentrate on at that, as it smartly sidesteps the deeper rumblings of discontent that are continuing to sound below Egypt's skin. As long as the basic tenets of Egypt's Chicago-school economic orthodoxy remain stable, men with beards v women with no headscarves is a political divide that western policymakers and Egyptian elites are happy to contend with.’
But, as Shenker says in a second observation, ‘What they're less keen to acknowledge – because it carries the revolution out of its sheltered border – are the other trenches that are increasingly being etched at the margins of Egyptian society, dividing those who have reaped pharao-esque riches as a result of 20-odd years of "structural adjustment" from those left behind in zones of neoliberal exclusion.’
So the SCAF plan for an orderly transition to a legitimate and stable civilian government in which they still had considerable power is not going to be the outcome of these elections. In fact, that plan is in tatters.
That means that although there will be ‘instability’, as the establishment pundits call it, the revolution is not over. Indeed ‘instability’ is an understatement. Egypt is a republic with all the problems of Germany’s Weimar republic after the First World War: a structural political crisis and a worsening economic crisis.
If the forces of the revolution are to step forward as a hegemonic force in Egyptian society they need to find a way of reaching deeper into the society around them than they have done so far. The impact of Hamdeen Sabahy’s campaign shows that there is a mass audience waiting to hear their message.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.