Egypt's liberals face the worst-case scenario

The country's first democratic elections have produced an unappealing run-off between the Islamist c

All eyes are on Egypt again, as the world marks the end to another Arab spring narrative with the country’s first genuine multi-candidate elections.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hilton Clinton congratulated the people on “seizing the promise of last years’ uprising.” With ink-stained fingers, millions of Egyptians should have been celebrating being one step closer to the military junta handing over power to a civil authority.

When the results came in, Egypt was in shock. Two candidates will face each other in a runoff election on 16-17 June: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

For many, in particularly the leftists and liberal movements, this was a worst-case scenario: a reactionary Islamist versus a former member of the Mubarak regime. Fears by protesters that their revolution has been hijacked by power-hungry political forces was sharply brought into focus.  This in turn has lead to the growth of a reactive activism. 

 “I voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi,” says Mustafa, 45, a taxi driver from Cairo, referring to one of the left-leaning presidential candidates. “Why? Because he’s not Feloul [remnant of Mubarak’s regime] or an Islamist and he has a better chance than the other secular contestants.”

When questioned about the policy specifics of this particular presidential contender, who ended up coming third in the running, Mustafa admitted he did not know or care. “Look,” he said to me, “my fear is being ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood who betrayed us or by a Mubarak man.  And I want the army to go.”

This would become the familiar response across the capital’s polling stations. Although the candidate choice may change, the resounding phrase was “ahsan il-wahsheen”: the best of the worst. A runoff between Mursi and Shafiq, for revolutionaries, is a worst of the worse scenario.

Power plays

The current political context of these elections is a telling indication of the trouble Egypt is in. The country still does not have a constitution, meaning the upcoming president has no job description. The ill-fated constituent assembly was suspended on 10 April, 2012, after elected members, including liberals, representatives of Egypt’s Islamic and Christian institutions and the judiciary, staged a mass walkout.  Attempts to revamp a Constitutional Declaration written by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in March last year, in order to tailor it to a civilian president failed.  

Consequently, according to the military document, the new president is assigned all the roles the SCAF have enjoyed minus two sub-points: the ability to author legislation and public policy.

This means presidential campaigns have been busy unveiling socio-economic programs for Egypt, that no one can hand-on-heart, say they are able to implement. The public, arguably, voted blind.

While the country’s emerging political forces continue to jockey for power and privileges, the ruling military council has throughout the year waged a counter-revolution campaign, violently putting down street protests.

One of the most worrying and overlooked developments was the single largest mass arrest of protesters since the start of the revolution on 4 May, as orchestrated by the SCAF. Hundreds are currently facing military trials, a practise illegal under International Human Rights law, where defendants, with practically no legal representation, are quickly handed harsh jail sentences by army judges.

As the country’s revolutionary forces continue to face marginalisation from the formal political arena, proponents of change wonder what happened to the informal community of Tahrir Square during the 18 days, where people imagined a new Egypt?

A reactive street

Street action has, arguably, become reactive, as typified by the 4 May clashes between the military police and protesters. That particular demonstration had been called in response to a thug attack on a separate sit-in in front of the defence ministry.

“We didn’t believe in the initial cause of the sit-in, many chose not to join us that Friday but what do you do when people die?” asks Ahmed, 25, an engineering student, whose friends were briefly detained. “Do you let blood be spilled?”

What ensued was a chain of kneejerk protests and multiple incidences of arrests, a recurring pattern in Egypt since November’s street battles with police.

The presidential elections similarly encouraged a reactive response to engagement in formal politics.

Minority groups, in particular felt the pressure.  As Coptic multimedia journalist Simon Hanna explained, churches called on Egypt’s Christians to throw their support behind former-regime figure Ahmed Shafiq.  Escalating violence against the Christian community, including recent burning of churches, he explained, is perceived by many to have become more prevalent after the ouster of Mubarak.

“They feel very vulnerable right now, they believe Shafiq as president is going to be strong enough to counteract the Islamists, which is a tangible fear.” 

Revolutionaries began to change tack, when opinion polls declared former regime members and Islamist candidates were the presidential frontrunners. “I boycotted the November parliamentary elections, I thought it was the right thing to do at the time,” says Nadim Amin, a protester who became part of labour lawyer Khalid Ali’s presidential campaign.

“But not now – we could not afford to not to get involved. When there is fighting people come to the streets, when there is an election people head to the ballot box,” Nadim explained.

In an unexpected turn of events, high-profile revolutionaries, such as Ahmed Harara, an iconic figure of the revolution who lost both his eyes in street battles with the police, came out in support of “middle way” presidential candidates such as Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Growth on the ground

The very decision to field a “revolutionary candidate”, a reformist action, Mohamed Waked, member of the National Front for Citizens and Democracy, believes could have aborted revolution had they succeeded in assuming power.

“The elections are a corrupt process, if you get into it, it will corrupt you – the military are going to control all the upcoming president’s mandates,” said Waked, explaining how it will be impossible for the next president to separate himself from the autocratic state.

At the same time, Waked says “the army would be able to say: look, you had the revolution, you got your man in power, now go home.”

As musician and producer Omar Kamal, who boycotted the elections, put it: “You have got the same APCs that ran protesters over in the October 2011 Maspero violence, driving around Tahrir Square with military personal on top asking people to do their ‘national duty’ and vote.”

This co-opting of the revolution by the military regime is another threat the revolutionary movement is facing. Tahrir square, the bastion of Egypt’s uprising, became a problematic space when in February, the police and military began telling protesters they were “allowed” to protest in the space.

The co-opting of the revolutionary symbol is indicative of several attempts by the military junta to appropriate, and therefore abort, revolutionary campaigns and movements. 

All is not lost though, believes Waked. Since the people took Tahrir on January 25, the country has developed a “revolutionary condition”, he explains. When things are not right, people, however problematically, come to streets.

“This state of rebellion stretches across Egypt and transcends so many different political spaces now, from strikes to neighbourhood politics,” Waked emphasises, arguing that gauging the pulse of the revolution via Tahrir is misleading.

Although, the iconic downtown square is not defunct. “The language of politics in Egypt means that every now and then, protesters must come and present their case in Tahrir, it signals something wrong.”

Industrial action, Waked believes is the future of the uprising. Fatma Ramadan, of the Workers movements agrees.

“The workers will save the revolution,” she says, “if the labour movement continues to independently unionise and become politicised, then we would be able to affect production inside of Egypt thereby affecting change in the country.”

She went on to say that the future of the revolution is bound up with the future of the workers movement: “you can’t talk about them separately.  We will only be successful if we can marry social forces with political forces.”

There has been much criticism of the workers movement, particularly after the failed February 11, 2012 general strike. The hodgepodge of a student-called day of civil disobedience, boycotts and a call for a general strike flopped. Although the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions lent their signature to the student-led initiative, only one factory staged a strike.

Nevertheless, Ramadan explains that it showed the start of an important connect. The fledgling student movement, which has been effectively challenging oppressive university bylaws, was reaching out. The students, recognised, Ramadan said, if not a bit naively, the strength in working together and the vital role of the labour movement has in the ongoing revolution. These connections have also started to happen with the farmers.

The fellahin (peasants) and trade unions, for the first time in Egyptian history are working together, by drafting articles for Egypt’s constitution. Shahinda Maqlad, head of the Independent Farmers Federation, paints a grim picture of Egypt’s agricultural sector prior to the January 25 Revolution, characterised by poor government planning, oppressive policies and general apathy towards the plight of the fellahin.

Farmers, who are beginning to unionise, are now calling for substantial policy changes, highlighting the need for subsistence agricultural policies in their proposed constitutional articles.

 “To be independent you have to find a way to make your own living and so Egypt needs to be able to feed itself," Maqlad explains. She sees the farmers’ demands as being bound up with the gradual rebuilding of Egypt as a key player in the region.“ Once revolutionaries begin to draw connections between their grievances and those of the fellahin and workers – across every sector of society -we will have strength to truly to realise our demands,” Maqlad believes.

After all, she stresses, echoing Waked, “The revolution is not just in the square, it is everywhere.“

Egypt’s presidential elections did not offer the attractive photo finish that international media would have wanted but there is a danger of becoming too reductively pessimistic.

While the political elite continues to play a short-term game, grassroots initiatives are laying the groundwork to affect real change. Historically change is a long and hard process: “This is a two to three year long battle,” concludes Waked, “If you know understand and appreciate that we have a much longer fight, much of the depression and the panic will go away.”

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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