Saturday 14 April 2012

The presidential theatre

(Addition, 15 April in the morning: Oh the pleasure of getting it all wrong again. Just hours after I wrote this note, the supreme electoral council excluded Omar Suleyman, Khairat al-Shater and Abu Ismail from running for presidency. Unless some of them will be able to successfully appeal the decision, it looks like the main electoral battle is going to be Abu el-Futuh against Amr Musa - which already sounds a bit better than what I expected in the afternoon. - But then again, there is good reason to expect that dirty game by the Military Council was involved, and will be involved again...

But premature as my political analysis was once again, I think this note still has something to say about the mood of these days. And I still do think that the revolution has failed in an important, deeper sense even if things, against all odds, go well.)


For weeks, there has been essentially one topic of political discussion in Egypt: The presidential elections. It has been quite a theatre, with lots of political game, lawsuits, and last-minute surprises. Now the list of candidates stands - although some changes still can happen because of pending lawsuits - and the contours of the political battle around presidency are taking shape. And it is a dark and frightening shape, giving much reason to fear that the presidential elections will mark the definite point of failure of the 25 January revolution.

Just when Egypt’s revolutionaries had learned to fear the populist power of the Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail (whose enthusiastic supporters have plastered the country with posters showing his bearded face and who almost got kicked out of the race because his mother may have held American citizenship), the very last day of registrations for presidential candidates taught them that there are worse things to fear: the former head of secret service and Mubarak’s short-time vice president Omar Suleyman, the shared menace of all opponents of the Mubarak system. Omar Suleyman had denied that he would be running just a day before, and then suddenly handed in his registration, and collected more than 40,000 signatures in his support in just one day. After the controversial candidacy of Khairat al-Shater by the Muslim brotherhood just a few days earlier, this was the second and more significant surprise.

In a matter of days, Omar Suleyman has completely changed the nature of the presidential game, and according to a representative survey by the daily Al Masry Al Youm that was published today, he is now the most popular candidate, followed by Abdel Mun‘im Abu al-Futuh (the only revolutionary candidate who has any chances to win) and Hazem Abu Ismail. However, 38,1 % of those who answered to the survey did not yet know whom they would vote, and their vote will be decisive. However, the survey gives some interesting statistical information that is telling also about those who have not yet made up their mind. Omar Suleyman is especially popular among people with low education and income in rural areas - the same constituencies that also have the highest number of undecided voters. These were the voters who have been most disconnected from the revolutionary movement, most exposed to state media, and who in the Parliamentary elections mostly put their hope in the Islamist parties - parties that after few months of parliamentary work have already lost much of their aura of piety and moral integrity. Omar Suleyman is also very popular among those members of the urban middle classes who from the beginning on experienced the revolution as a chaotic threat to the orderly way of life and who now see in the former vice president an experienced and reliable politician who is able to steer the country back to the right course.

No matter how much antagonism there is between the radical revolutionary camp that has insisted on an ongoing confrontation with the Military Council, and the more opportunistic Islamist groups that dominate the parliament and who since the parliamentary elections have been opposed to demonstrations (until changing their mind last week), Omar Suleyman has given them a new shared enemy. On the suburban train three days ago, I overheard a group of middle aged men with Salafi beards discussing the elections, and one of them saying: “If Omar Suleyman becomes the president, then the prisons will be full again, with Islamists, liberals, socialists - we will be all together again.”

But a shared enemy has not brought back the unity of the early days of the revolution. Yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood and a number of Salafi groups called for demonstrations against military rule and the candidature of Omar Suleyman, which was met with ridicule by the supporters of ongoing revolution who had learned to know the Muslim Brotherhood in particular as an extremely opportunistic group that takes whatever position suits their momentaneous interest. In Alexandria, a large group of protesters gathered at al-Qa’id Ibrahim mosque at the time of Friday prayer, but the revolutionary block was as good as absent, except for a small group of people who were holding up signs provocatively asking where the Muslim Brothers had been when the revolutionaries were being killed in Muhammad Mahmoud and Qasr al-‘Ayni streets, and what the parliament has done for the sake of change. These signs caused quite some debate and commotion. I didn’t stay to see how the debate and the demonstration continued, for I was on my way to meet friends in Kafr al-Zayyat, an industrial town in the Nile Delta to see friends - and found everybody talking about the president as well.

Kafr al-Zayyat happens to be the home region of Abou al-Futuh, and his posters cover the walls of the city and surrounding villages. But the inhabitants of the city and its surrounding villages are far from united. On the minibus on the countryside, the driver, sporting a Salafi beard, showed him as an enthusiastic supported of Abu Ismail, and very happy about the recent court decision that the sheikh’s mother was Egyptian after all. Discussing with a passenger on the front seat, he argued that if only Egypt gets a president who applies the Law of God in full, all the economical and moral problems will be solved, graduates will get work, corruption will end, and the economical situation will improve in just two years’ time. The passenger, a civil servant by his looks, agreed about the urgency of the problems of labour market, corruption and economy, but argued that he would cast his vote for Abu al-Futuh whom he described as “wasati” representing a religious and modern middle way.

In a cafĂ© in the centre of the city, I was present at a more heated debate about the presidential candidate with two young men, one of them running a private business, and a determined supporter of the revolution, and the other an army officer. D., the army officer, argued that he would vote for Omar Suleyman whom he described as the “best among the bad” because he is an experienced statesman able to run the affairs of the country - and added that basically everybody in the military circles support him. For D., the choice was one between the Salafi populist Abu Ismail and the experienced and responsible Suleyman - a binary that is also presented by parts of the state media and that, by ignoring Abu al-Futuh, reduces the choice to one between fundamentalism and security. M, the revolutionary, countered that while he was against Abu Ismail, Omar Suleyman certainly would be the worst of choices, a leading member of the clique responsible for wrecking the country before and after the revolution, and choosing him would be equal to choosing Mubarak. More than that, he argued, Abu Ismail maybe bad, but Omar Suleyman is not only bad. More than that, he is a traitor who sold Egypt’s interests for the sake of security cooperation with the USA and Israel.

Unsurprisingly, the debate remained inconclusive, and neither of the two would change his mind. In any case, the elections will be decided by those who do not yet know whom to vote. And Egypt’s voters have proved to take their decision in the last minute, often even while standing in line for the polling station. But in all likelihood (unless the law just passed by the parliament banning high functionaries of the old system from running for presidency is not overruled by the constitutional court) the second round of elections will see Omar Suleyman against one of the three Islamist candidates: The Salafi Abu Ismail, the revolutionary Abu al-Futuh, or the Muslim Brother Khairat al-Shater. This on the assumption of more or less fair elections. However, the way in which Omar Suleyman, clearly with the backing of the military and secret service establishments, entered the competition in one day, gives every reason to assume that he is the Military Council’s man for presidency, and that the military will do everything they can to facilitate his victory. Add to that the marginalisation of the radical revolutionary camp along with the gradual loss of credibility of the large Islamist parties, and it looks very likely that the presidential elections will be the final nail to the coffin of the 25 January revolution.

If this will be the case - and I will be happy to be proven wrong - the question arises: Why did the January 25 revolution fail?

Of course, the revolution has been successful on many fronts. It brought down Mubarak and his family. It has created a powerful culture of discontent and creative thinking about new ways to live and to organise society. After long years of struggle, it has brought Islamist groups to new power. But politically, it has already failed, and only a (rather unlikely) election victory of Abu al-Futuh can still turn it into a political success. The original demand spoken out by the protesters on Tahrir and other squares during the first days of the revolution was not only to remove Hosni Mubarak, but to change the ways in which the country was being governed. However, one year after the beginning of the revolution, those who are serious about changing the ways the country is being governed have proven themselves as unable to seize power, and those able to seize power have proven themselves as unwilling to change the ways in which the country is being governed.

The record of the radical revolutionary camp is poor in terms of both organisation and popular mobilisation, but then this seems to be often the destiny of the crazy few who start revolutions - their power, if any, will be a cultural and social one of nurturing a new generation of highly educated and highly critical people in key social positions. The problem, however, is that the young revolutionaries are often very unaware of the struggles of the past, and ill-equipped to avoid repeating past defeats, a problem articulated by an older professor at a literary salon attended by young, largely bourgeois audience in Alexandria. While the organisers of the salon, most of them between 20 and 30, were full of enthusiasm about the break with a de-politicized past, the older professor argued: “I see you making the same demands I made fifty years ago, and I’m very afraid that after fifty years of struggle and imprisonment, you in turn will find another young guy at the podium, making the same demands.”

As for those able to seize the power: The army should have never been trusted in the first place, and those people - including myself - who for few weeks were optimistic about the positive role of the military have been taught a bitter lesson, a lesson that has cost hundreds of lives. Most bitter, however, is the record of the Muslim brotherhood that in the course of just one year has step by step sold the cause of revolution for the sake of political power, so much as to gradually discredit itself before even gaining power. They still do have enough credit to exert power from the parliament and the cabinet (and who knows, maybe Shater still has a chance in the presidential game after all), but they are already on their way of transforming from an religious-political oppositional organisation into an opportunistic ruling party along the lines of Mubarak’s NDP, and by now many of the most respectable and trustworthy cadres of Brotherhood have either left it, or have been kicked out. With their more populistic approach, the Salafis may be able to profit from the problems the Brotherhood faces, but they, too, are intimately embedded in the clientelist politics of family alliances, favouritism, only with the pious vision of doing all that “without violating the Law of God.”

On 10 February 2011, I wrote in this blog that whatever happens, whether there will democracy in Egypt, or an authoritarian rule reconsolidating its hold, the uprising is already a success because it has given birth to a significant - and socially and culturally powerful - part of the population who can no longer be governed the way they once were. By now, it seems that the more pessimistic of the two scenarios of relative success is the more likely one: a reconsolidation of military and secret service authoritarianism, or alternatively the consolidation of an Islamist-led rule that builds on the old structures rather than changing them. As said, this does not change the fact that the new powers-to-be will face a social and political opposition of a kind Mubarak only faced (and failed to address) for less than three weeks. It is something, a little victory that hopefully will pave the way for new struggles and greater victories to come. But it is so much less than might have been possible.

However, there is also a deeper problematic that is not so much related to the ways Egypt in particular is governed, but with conditions of living in the contemporary world as a whole. On a deeper level, the Arab revolution were not directed so much against the governments of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Asad, or Saleh, but were an expression of a deeper discontent about a sense of existence that deprives one of one’s dignity, humanity, and freedom while at the same time promising their fulfilment.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 are perhaps best understood as a prelude for something that is yet to come, something that emerged under particularly sharp and oppressive conditions of frustrated promises of consumer capitalism and oppressive authoritarianism in the Arab world. By aiming their anger at the presidents and their cliques, however, the revolutionary movements have failed to name the original discontent. There are some leftists also in Egypt who are pointing at neoliberal capitalism as the core cause of the problem, but their analysis, too, may fall short of the problematic. And in any case, their analysis has not been translated into an instinctively convincing common sense of discontent and demand.

Whoever will rule in Egypt in the years to come will continue the neoliberal policies of the past decades, and will further intensify the existential discontent of living in a high capitalist world under the continuous pressure of growth and consumption, a world were precisely those things that offer temporary satisfaction - buying things, material comfort, revivalist religiosity, expectation of social ascendancy - are the same things that also increase the sense of pressure, alienation, and demoralising competitiveness that people experience. It is a problem not limited to Egypt or the Arab world - it shared also by people living in more privileged conditions as shown by the way the revolutionary spirit was taken over by the Occupy movement and others (with even less success, eventually). However, by the very real power of consumption to actually provide material comfort and to thus carry the promise of existential comfort, it remains very difficult for those people who most suffer from the condition of the world as it is to stand up in protest to change it.

In short, both the early success and the eventual failure of the January 25 revolution have to do with the problem that there is something wrong with the way the whole world is working. But unable to name the discontent as we are (as said, I think the socialists only have a partial name for it), we are still far from actually solving it.