Tuesday 29 November 2011

Jakob Lindfors writing: Continuous Elections – Until Victory!

The following note about the first day of parliamentary elections in Egypt was written by Jakob Lindfors who was friendly enough to allow me to publish it on this blog. This is the link to the original:


The first day of the loooong Egyptian Parliamentary vote has ended. And this long vote is only the beginning of an even longer Continuous Election season that would, according to the plan laid down by the (Transitional?) Military Council, take us through, after the Parliamentary vote (over 1 month), elections for the Shoura Council (another month), then Constitutional Referendum (again!), and eventually Presidential Elections (promised by the Militaries to be finished by those magic six months (again!) from now…

My conclusion of this first day of Election season brings some bad news. But also much good news. In fact, at the end of the day, Good seems be taking a democratic lead.

Let’s start with a piece of good:

The general voting atmosphere is positive. In the first elections after the January 28th revolutionary burning of the headquarters of Hosny Mubarak’s civil organisation – The National Democratic Party, counterpart in supporting his version of Military rule– the behaviour of the different campaigning entities, parties and individuals, has been close to exemplary!!

Yes, there are reports on infringements on behalf of several campaigners. Unlawful campaigning tactics outside and inside polling stations, providing transport for people to the places as long as they vote “right”, buying votes, and fighting in some places with white weapons and cut bottles, etc. But this is nothing!

The general voting conditions are much improved in comparison to Mubarak days: now when the campaigning entities have entered a healthier field of true and relatively transparent competition, they have proved to be pretty well behaved.

This is a victory of the Revolutionary movement. Before, when there was no real competition, the level of violence in elections was horrendous. On the one hand against opposition, they were simply not accepted. But also between the corrupt criminal elements of the System itself: “maslaha” (partisan interest) vying for a piece of the cleptocracy cake.

(Of course, the above judgement decent behaviour might be premature, and I could be proven to be terribly wrong at any time! There is still more than a month to go, and many things can either go wrong by situation. Or go wrong by intentional sabotage…Ma3 3aleina)

Actually, something I take as good news too: it seems that in the present more democratic set-up, the elements that are most guilty of infringements of regulations are the parties that have most appetite to now cut new pieces of advantages in the New Parliamentary power play. And such partisan interests behaviour will be taken a lot less lightly by big numbers of voters who feel empowered to have the right of institutional, law-based, government.

Yes. To be governed by law and by credible and efficient institutions, this IS really an issue at this point. The story that started today is the beginning of a long election season. Sure. And the week that passed before it was a very long week. As it happened, still early in it and it feels like ages ago, (on Sunday as it was, less than 24 hours into the bloody battle against the Ministry of Interior, just hours before the ferocious combined Interior Ministry forces and the Military attack on Tahrir happened, which ended in big numbers of people getting killed, injured and other arrested and subsequently abused) I had to make a trip to the deeper neighbourhoods of the Pyramids area, al-Talbiya district. I went with companion Shaker to check up on some places we had previously contacted to set up the Community Theatre Play called “Going to the Neighbours House”, which talks about the situation of Refugees from several African countries and from Iraq who live in Cairo.

During our trip in the neighbourhood of al-Talbiya – an extremely dense informal area of unpaved streets, high-rise housing built breaking all terms of urban regulations, and extreme high-piched everyday human interactions – at one point we took a run-down microbus to get out to Pyramids street (asphalted of course: after all it carries international tourists towards the Heritage site of the famous Giza Pyramids). We jumped into the microbus and found three other persons sitting in the front coach. They were all men, looking around 40 or 50 years old, but they might as likely have been just around 30. As it turned out, these men belonged to the society of the extreme poor in Egypt. They were recent immigrants from the Upper Egyptian town of al-Minya. Day-workers, which means people who sit out in the street each morning, waiting for any “patron” to come and pick them up to do a day of labour (most commonly in construction). And concerning the age that appeared reasonable from looking at their faces, I have since long given up trying make a clear guess: 45 or 30 … Real poverty carves life experience into the faces of who carries it far too quickly.

In the bus, Shaker asks me what is going on Down Town (we had coincidentally been together with other companions of that same Refugee play at the by-now-famous-Mohammed Mahmoud-street the afternoon before, Saturday 19th, as we were supposed to have a rehearsal for it in the American University campus, at the very moment (early afternoon) when all hell broke loose there, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the area doing anything else but constructive theatre work). I answered that the “all hell” continued. At this point, one of the day-worker passengers turned and looked at us. “Really” he says “the fighting goes on?” I answered positively to the question, but tried to do it in a diplomatic way, not showing any particular attachment to the event in one way or the other, being conscious of the possibly “foreign” looking aspect of my face and dialect, and more conscious even, of being close to “camel” neighbourhood (yeah – this was my prejudice!)

The man turned back to his friends, and was silent for a while. Then he turned back to me and he said: “Well, but don’t you think it is our right to fight them?” Again I was non-committal in my answer. But the man was fully committed in his solidarity with the boys fighting the Police. Then my companion Shaker asked “But then why are you not there fighting with them?” They answered they would have liked to, but how, since they spend some 14 hours out working each day just looking to take care of their families.

Shaker then asks about the elections, will they go back to al-Minya to vote? The same man answers “No. Why would I go to vote? The people who present themselves to elections only do it to advance their own interests (maslaha) – I vote for this guy, and all he’ll do when he wins is to put the son of his cousin in this position, and some uncle in another… No, I don’t care for that. What I want is a government that rules by law and gives to each citizen his rights. When I feel this is what I vote for, I will vote”.

And between himself and his friends, and us, we broke into a conversation about social justice, workers rights, a social insurance system that protects families from individual accidents of providers, etc… Until we reached the paved Pyramid Street and all of us went different directions.

And this type of consciousness of what the issues are really about will not only be found among these three men in the Talbiya microbus. It is a lot more widespread than that.

Then, what is Bad News?

Well, the whole day has been bad news somehow. The absurd theatre play of the Institutions of “Security” – the Military and the Police of the Ministry of Interior – guaranteeing peaceful and orderly elections, only days after the same two institutions were responsible for the murder of over 40 young men, most under 20 years of age. It is totally absurd! It is over 40 people! It must be an issue. And the deepest absurdity and the deepest feeling of sadness arise when the whole country somehow accepts to play in this charade. What more striking image of total corruption? Not only institutional corruption, we know that one, and expect it. But the corruption of society itself…

This was a sad feeling today.

But then again, I really doubt that this “social” corruption IS that deep any more. I have felt in so many encounters lately that the past ten months of upheaval is really challenging people to question the past political experience. If people in February were only talking about 30 years of injustice, and people who tried to give another discourse were silenced, now it is a wholly new field. After a period when people were very tired of the “instability of revolution”, they are now also realising that it is a question of being ruled by an entity that does not have nor the qualification nor the legitimacy of ruling a nation. Someone – not at all a Tahrir revolutionary, but a common 14 hour/day working family father – explained to me recently, actually as recent as during the last days of intense fire in front of the Ministry of Interior: “I want the military. Sure, I want them: on our borders. I am happy if they protect us there. But if some of them are going to come also to the capital and tell us how we are going to run the country, well, then let them leave their uniforms and weapons there on the border. And they come and discuss with us here in the city, them like us, no difference. It’s been 60 years now. Naser, then Sadat, and Mubarak. Does this al-Mushir (Field Marshal (Tantawi)) want to try it too? No way.”

A companion of mine, Diana, who teaches at the University of Minya – as she frames it, after all a second rate public university combining youth from all Egypt, from Alexandria to Aswan, all from middle class or lower class backgrounds and representative of a “silent majority” – feels very clearly how the consciousness among students has changed from November a year ago until today.

And finally, in Port Saiid last night, on the eve of elections, friends I have, all over 60 years old and common people, workers in the declining harbour business of the city, were spreading the word of a “blank vote” alternative, wanting to dis-own all participating political forces, Islamic, Old-guard, or “Liberal”… Their intention to just give a revolutionary statement that nothing of what is presented in the political theatre at this point responds to their true aspirations and intentions.

People today however went to vote. And in the greater picture I think they had good reasons to. First of all, many were hoping to bring peace to the country, feeling understandably tired and fed up with the deaths of young people. Many hoped to participate for the first time, in any election at all (people in Egypt did simply NOT vote before). And many were hoping to give a vote that would count in an empowering way. Many were totally lost anyways, not having clear alternatives (here is also a failure of “new” political forces). Many have stated that they would give their votes to the Muslim Brotherhood, just because they seemed to be the only force they could recognize, more so than necessarily for a true ideological commitment to the group. And the Muslim Brotherhood – partisan interest (maslaha) apart – have to be given a big credit for the basic organisational and mobilising work they actually manage: it is a path for any serious political movement to follow (in the essential sense, discarding only the old-style election dodging ways of old-System players that they are also guilty of…) Many voters were even that lost that they were on the streets looking for their balloting place just out of worry about the 500 LE fine the Military Government has threatened to impose on anyone who does not vote (great Stalinist democratic election standards).

But now, let’s get back to some really good news again. The real “infringements” on elections. It seems these were caused by pure incompetence of the present authorities. The elections, Field Marshal Tantawi had promised, would be ensured by SCAF and the Ministry of Interior. Good. Through the day no major eruption of violence happened. But as I claim above, it is not really due to the institutional backup of military and police, but to the contrary: that the competition is done between more independent, more accountable and therefore more responsible political forces now.

The only really serious election problems today have been caused by purely institutional failure. The incompetence of these mentioned institutions to guarantee the very infrastructure of the vote is what has produced all major instances of disturbances. Some polling stations did not open in 7 hours because of one or another missing ingredient (no boxes; boxes without a lock on it; not enough ballots; unstamped ballots; no ink that voters should dip their fingers in; no presence or late arrival of supervising judges, etc.) This type of failures has led to real public order problems: angry voters invading polling stations, some cases of supervising judges being kidnapped (!).

This chaos is likely to continue. This will be contrary to the hoped for gaining of good-will of the military government. Framed in a PR stunt as the elections for “Revolution Parliament” and being elections people really had hopes in, actually it might very well happen that they contribute to an even deeper popular resentment of the situation, when people experience the continued institutional management failure of the SCAF government. This would further undermine the crumbling popular and always officially manipulated idea that “the Military is the only capable institution of the country”.

It can backfire in a situation where more and more people are realising that military training might not be the best qualification to sound state management skills.

And then, the results… Well, the Muslim Brotherhood will without doubt be the greater beneficiary of the parliamentary game. And for sure, there is no doubt that their capacity for institutional management is highly superior to the past and present military governed system. However, the only thing we can actually be sure of is that these elections will create yet another political force that has a say and a stake in the turmoil. But nothing more than that. The Brotherhood might, ideally, have capacity to really improve everyday life conditions of many citizens. But then, what practical capacity will they have when the actually ruling institution might not be supportive of such positive change, but could instead be countering it?

The struggle is unpredictable, and prone to constant change. The Revolutionaries do not change much. Nor the military. But the other forces will be swinging in and out of “Tahrir”. Depending on how well they present their cases, they will or will not be welcome to pass the checkpoints of the Square.

There will still be many developments to the ongoing Continuous Revolution – Until Victory.

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