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.”

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle