Friday, 9 December 2011

The Liberal's Dilemma: Egypt's Elections

Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for thirty years under emergency powers with the justification of ‘après moi le deluge’, an argument that played better in the West than at home. He presented his military-backed regime as the sole bulwark against the flood waters of fundamentalist Islam. Never mind that, in effect, he was making the prophecy come true: by ruthlessly repressing legitimate opposition and emasculating secular parties, he left the field clear to the underground opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood; by supporting the unbridled greed of a narrow elite while ignoring the misery of the majority of the population, he left the door wide open for the Brotherhood to fill the tremendous gap in social services. For years, the Brotherhood accumulated good will, trust, and name recognition. When the revolution broke out on January 25th, the Islamists initially held back, letting the young progressives fight the good fight, perhaps as much out of calculation as prudence: their presence in the field in the early days would have allowed Mubarak to damn the uprising as ‘radical Islamist.’
And when the revolution succeeded, the Muslim Brotherhood were ready, the only organized party in a field of fragmented, chaotic, leaderless, secular start-up movements. This came as no surprise, but the unexpected took the form of the seemingly sudden emergence of a hitherto obscure sect who called themselves the Salafis, asserting a fundamentalist approach at odds with the Brotherhood’s moderate stance.
At the polls, the first-time voter- and all Egyptians are first-time voters, after sixty years of single-party rule and single-candidate presidential ‘referendums’- the first time voter was faced with a bewildering choice of deliberate complications: independent lists, proportional representation lists, a plethora of unfamiliar parties and candidates, an electoral sheet that would have baffled a nuclear scientist- in a county where thirty percent of the electorate is functionally illiterate. The election sheets actually featured dozens of random icons like a basketball or sunglasses to identify the parties for those who could not read the names. Not only is there no literacy test for eligibility to vote, there is a Nasser-era mandate that requires 50% of the seats in Parliament to be held by ‘peasants and workers.’ Is it any wonder that the hordes of the illiterate, downtrodden and newly enfranchised citizens wielded their vote in favor of the familiar name of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate?
So now the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is makes its power grab with the stern threat of their version of Mubarak’s conundrum: It’s the Military or the Islamists. The new constitution, according to the SCAF, will reserve supra-constitutional powers to the military and remove them from civilian scrutiny or control. No longer behind the scenes, the military will directly appoint the Prime Minister.
So what is the torn Egyptian liberal progressive to do? Uphold the principal of democracy even if it means letting the revolution he bled and died for be co-opted by an overwhelming Islamist majority government? Or endorse the military power grab as a secular counterbalance? Either way, his revolution has been hijacked: his choice is between the junta or the mullah.
There are two potential scenarios: an Islamic-leaning party wins in parliament, but proves to be a moderate and even competent custodian of the country’s economic and social good, as in Turkey and in Indonesia after Suharto’s fall. In the other scenario, Western powers intervene to nullify election results favorable to an Islamic party, as in Algeria, leading to a decade of unspeakably bloody civil war.
The Egyptian liberal prays for the first scenario, but knows that he must avoid the second at all costs.

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