Friday 25 May 2012

Some social science of the presidential elections

I have usually avoided writing on this blog when not in Egypt, because its value, if any, lies in the proximity to events, moods, and everyday encounters as the stuff for some preliminary anthropological theory of the revolutionary process. With the presidential elections, I now feel compelled to make an exception and try to offer some analysis from the distanced vantage point of a cozy coffee house in Europe. The election results not only determine the political future of Egypt: they also provide an amazing wealth of sociological data that could be telling about the general social dynamics in Egypt of which the revolution in Egypt is a part. In consequence, this post is more sociological than ethnographic, trying to look at some interesting societal tendencies on the basis of the statistical evidence provided by the election results.

The result, to start with, it is nothing short of a disaster in terms of Egypt's immediate political future. The second round of the elections on 16 and 17 June will see a face-off of Mohammed Morsy (25% of the vote in the first round)) of the Muslim brotherhood and Ahmad Shafiq (24,3%), Mubarak's last prime minister. This result wasn't foreseen by most observers - I myself gave a completely mistaken prediction in an interview on Finnish radio on Wednesday, anticipating a lead of Amr Moussa (11,4%) and Abouel Fotouh (17,3%) who, however, ended up 5th and 4th, beaten by the socialist Sabbahi who with an amazing campaign and with very little money managed to gain the biggest part of the revolutionary vote, reaching a completely unexpected third place with 21% of the vote. Unexpected as it was for many, the result appears to be a largely genuine expression of the voters' will, even if it does have a margin of error due to minor rigging here and there (which unfortunately also means that we will never know with certainty whether Ahmad Shafiq really got more votes than Hamdeen Sabbahi). There is still the tiny chance that the outcome of a large number of polling stations can be contested because of irregularities and rigging – but Shafiq is 764,000 votes ahead of Sabbahi, and it is probably too large a gap to overcome by legal means.

As far as it comes to presidential elections, the revolution is now over, and we enter the age of battles of power between two powerful blocks that are fundamentally not committed to democracy. Whoever of the two wins, there is every reason to expect the worst from his rule. (The best of scenarios is an ongoing and undecided power struggle between the Brotherhood and the Military that will allow the revolutionary movement to gain ground because neither of the two powers is strong enough to eliminate political opposition.)

The elections might have had a different outcome. Much of the result was due to quite specific circumstances. The disqualification of former vice president Omar Suleyman and the Salafi preacher Hazem Salah ended up reducing the fragmentation of the pro-system and Islamist votes, which worked to the advantage of Morsy and Shafiq. At the same time, the competition between the two revolutionary candidates Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh fragmented the revolutionary vote, with tragic consequences (although neither one of them would have actually been able to unite all the votes of the two – their ideological agendas are too far apart for that). The decision of major Salafi groups to back Abouel Fotouh alienated a big part of his leftist and liberal supporters, which in turn turned into Sabbahi's advantage – but not to a sufficient degree. In the end, the result is what it is, but these elections certainly have been one of those visible moments of contingency in history where it is very clear that things might have just as well gone differently. But now back to the facts:

The data from the election tells that there are interesting things going on in Egypt. Some of them, more slowly and less dramatically, are working to the advantage of the revolutionary current, and give every reason to expect that things will remain in movement in Egypt for years to come.

1. On the basis of the election results, three political and electoral blocks of roughly equal size emerge: 1) the old system (represented by Ahmad Shafiq and Amr Moussa), promising cautious transformation, and standing in the tradition of Mubarak's authoritarian neoliberalism; 2) the Islamists (represented by Ahmad Morsy and a part of Abouel Fotouh's voters – AF was backed by a part of the Salafis which ended up costing him a lot of support in leftist and liberal circles), promising a religious-moral turn but essentially committed to Mubarak's neoliberal policies; and 3) - partly overlapping with the Islamists - the revolutionaries (represented by the Nasserist socialist Hamdeen Sabbahi and the liberal Islamist Abouel Fotouh), demanding a fundamental overhaul of the political and economical system, and representing a variety of ideological positions, including liberal, Nasserist, socialist, and Islamist). So in terms of popular support, no groups is clearly superior to the others.

(No, I do not count the Muslim Brotherhood to the revolutionaries. They have proven to be highly opportunistic politicians committed to winning the political game but not committed to fundamental systemic change. They have ridden the wave of the revolution when it suited them, and sold the revolution when it served their interests. There are Islamists who are with the revolution, but the Brotherhood is not among them.)

2. Although the immediate outcome of the elections is a defeat for the revolutionaries, the overall support of the revolutionary fraction has grown. In the constitutional referendum, the „No“ vote was 23%, which until now has been the best indication we had about the overall support of a demand for a fundamental change of the political system. In the parliamentary elections, the vote of liberal, leftist, and revolutionary Islamist groups together was in the same order of magnitude as the „no“ vote. In the presidential elections, in contrast, the two revolutionary candidates Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh gained together nearly 40% of the vote. Partly this is due to a part of the Salafis shifting towards the revolutionary spectrum lately, but there is more to it: Both Abouel Fotouh and Sabbahi were able to address people at a large scale beyond the immediate circles of revolutionary enthusiasts. While the revolutionary block has lost the presidential race, with Hamdeen Sabbahi it has also gained a leader who is able to gather mass support without making concessions either to the Islamists or to those afraid of change – a feat that seemed to be impossible to realise after the constitutional referendum and the parliamentary elections. Sabbahi may still become the president of Egypt - in five or ten years' time.

3. - The election was decided in favour of Shafiq and Morsy in the countryside and in small and medium-sized towns where Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh were not able to reach people on an individual level through family and other networks the way Morsy and Shafiq were. Especially the Muslim Brotherhood has proven itself as a veritable election machine capable of bringing people from their homes to the polling stations, and campaigning even inside the polling stations to persuade the undecided. However, and this very important, they are not having their greatest success in those milieus where they have their strongest social basis – that is, in the cities of northern Egypt – but mainly in the countryside and in southern Egypt. Like with Shafiq, their success in the elections relies to a significant degree on people who vote not on the basis of established ideological positions but of personal and clientelist relations (who knows whom, who can help whom) and expect solutions to immediate local or personal problems. For Shafiq, this is perfectly in line with established NDP practice, but for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is a contradiction of sorts, and shows that while their power in rural areas is great, in their original milieus they are in trouble.

Shafiq, in contrast to Morsy, also did well in Cairo which, with its proximity to the centre of power, interestingly has lots of both revolutionaries as well as hardcore supporters of the old system: Sabbahi 28,7%; Shafiq 27 %; Morsy 17%; Abouel Fotouh 16%; Moussa 11,3%.

4. - Both Morsy and Shafiq were totally defeated in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city that until now was thought to be an Islamist stronghold. This is the official result for Alexandria:
Sabbahi 34%; Abouel Fotouh 22%; Moussa 16%; Morsy 15%; Shafiq 12% (and others 1%)
This was not entirely a surprise, because already in the constitutional referendum in March 2011 Alexandria had some of the highest „no“ votes in all Egypt, close to 35% (both supporters of the old system as well as the Muslim Brotherhood rallied for a „yes“ vote). Rather than being an Islamist stronghold, Alexandria now has the revolutionary liberal/left as its most prominent political current (in terms of ideological position and public opinion, that is, not in terms of organisational power. In the latter regard the Islamists are vastly superior). This does not mean that the depiction of Alexandria as an Islamist stronghold is false – I think that in the past, it was true. Alexandria's position as a rapidly growing city of 4 or 5 millions somewhat out of the focus of the government's sight makes it a structurally oppositional city that suffers from neither the conservative inertia of the rural regions nor the vested interests and proximity to political power of the capital. This made it the perfect site for Islamist groups to develop and prove their political and social power in the past decades, and it has also made it the place where Sabbahi's revolutionary message with Nasserist undertones and populist appeal („One of us“ was his election slogan) would be most successful. Alexandria is a vanguard city when it comes to social and political dynamics in Egypt. It is worth keeping an eye on it.

5. - The support of the revolutionary fraction is heavily concentrated to cities, but not necessarily to the middle classes. Both in Cairo as well as in Alexandria, Sabbahi also gained a lot of votes in working-class areas. Structurally speaking, there seems to be a relationship between urbanisation and progressive politics that goes beyond the middle-class theory of democratisation. This puts the future government of either Morsy or Shafiq in front of a dilemma: To maintain power, they rely on a constituency that is often rural and poor. If the future government's economical and social policies are successful, this will lead to the growth of milieus that structurally favour progressive, anti-system politics, and sooner or later the future government will face new unrest – and stronger opposition. If its policies are unsuccesful, however, it will face new unrest much sooner.

6. - The revolutionary candidates were generally very weak in in rural areas, with one very interesting exception: Kafr El Sheikh, a largely rural province in the northern Nile Delta. Otherwise, the Nile Delta region was generally dominated by Shafiq (mostly first) and Morsy (mostly second), except in provinces with high degree of urbanisation like Daqahliya (which has two big cities, Mahalla and Mansoura) where Sabbahi came second behind Shafiq with a very narrow margin. In Kafr El Sheikh, however, he gained an overwhelming victory with a stunning 62% of the vote. Kafr El Sheikh is Sabbahi's home region, which is one reason for his success but not the whole story – Morsy did not win in his home region, and Abouel Fotouh was positively defeated in his. More importantly, Kafr El Sheikh has a history of leftist activism in the 1970's and 80's and although the old socialist networks had become inactive in the past two decades, they still could be reactivated for Sabbahi's campaign. In the village in northeastern Kafr El Sheikh where I do much of my fieldwork, those networks made it possible that in late April, the village was suddenly plastered by Sabbahi posters. At first, this was thanks to just six Nasserist families, but the spark soon spread also to the non-Nasserist village revolutionaries (who had formed themselves in spring of 2011 but had little practical success and played no role in the parliamentary elections), and many of them joined the Sabbahi campaign. The same happened in villages and towns throughout the province, with quite some effect as the results from Kafr El Sheikh show:
Sabbahi 62%; Morsy 17%; Abouel Fotouh 9 %; Shafiq 8%; Moussa 4%
Morsy and Shafiq won because their campaigns were able to link into family and clientelistic networks. The revolutionary candidates were successful either in cities where people are more likely to vote on the basis of ideology than networks, or in places where they could rely on pre-existing networks. While voting on the basis of ideology is likely to increase in the coming years (on the condition that there are free elections, that is), the revolutionary current can only reach majorities if it can rely on both ideology and networks. This means that if the revolutionary current does not want to wait for demographic change to solve the issue in their favour in 10 to 20 years, their most formidable task is to build those networks, and I'm not sure whether they are up to it.

7. - Yesterday evening the story started to spread that the Christian vote, influenced by the Coptic Orthodox Church that is very close to the old system, was instrumental for Shafiq making it to the second place. However, the most important base for Shafiq's succcess were not the Upper (i.e. southern) Egyptian provinces with their large Christian populations. Shafiq did well there but Morsy was the winner in most of Upper Egypt, and Shafiq got his most votes (in terms of absolute numbers) in the Nile Delta, most overwhelmingly so in the central Delta province of Sharqiya that has no remarkable Christian population: Shafiq 33,5%; Morsy 27,5%; Moussa 16 %; Sabbahi 12 %; Abouel Fotouh 11 %).

(the source of these calculations is this: - preliminary results but largely congruent with official final results)
(See also this overview, based on the official final results: )

To conclude, my expectation is that both Shafiq or Morsy will be really bad for Egypt, but that they may not be able to be quite as bad as they would like to. Shafiq will mean the consolidation of the military rule that has wrecked Egypt. Morsy is now trying to mobilise the revolutionary vote for him, and some (like the novelist Alaa El Aswany) are going along with that. But everything that the Brotherhood has done in the past year and so indicates that as soon as they gain power, they will drop, marginalise, and - if necessary - recklessly repress their former allies. However, the social and political landscape of Egypt as the outcome of the election shows it, indicates that no new leader will be able to gain the hegemonic and unquestioned position which Mubarak once had (before his authority began to crumble around 2005). Especially in the major cities, the future president will face a largely oppositional population, and it will be a tough job to govern Egypt in the coming years.

At the same time, there is no question that these elections have been the most serious and most irreversible defeat for the revolution since it began. There may not be another chance for the revolutionaries to gain power in free elections – I see no reason why either Shafiq or Morsy would have any interest to ever have free elections again unless they are forced to. The path of a peaceful revolution has come to a temporary end, and wrestling power back from either Morsy or Shafiq will likely require more than good campaigning.

Nevertheless, both Alexandria and Kafr El Sheikh (and Port Said, by the way, where Sabbahi also was first) provide crucial lections of how the revolutionaries can do it right. The path to power may begin in protests on the squares, but it must pass through the networks of people's ordinary lives and worlds. In at least three provinces in Egypt, the supporters of the revolution have found solutions to this problem. They offer lessons to be studied and learned from that may help to turn this defeat into future victories.