Men in Black: the black bloc causes trouble in Egypt

Masked men seed fear and confusion.

Arrest warrants were issued on Tuesday General Prosecutor Talaat Abdullah for members of the  “terrorist” Black Bloc group. Although very little is known about the group, reportedly dedicated to fighting Islamists, in the chaotic world of Egyptian politics it has caused hysteria.

President Mohamed Morsi's assistant for foreign affairs, Essam el-Haddad, wrote on his Facebook page that the Black Bloc was guilty of "systematic violence and organized crimes across the country."  The Muslim Brotherhood website Ikhwan Online added its voice, accusing the Black Bloc of being a Christian radical militia.

As reported in an article titled “The Black Bloc must die,” Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiyya have also issued threats.  Jama'a al-Islamiya Mufti Abdel Akhar Hammad is quoted as saying “God orders us to kill, crucify or cut off the hands and feet of those who spread mischief on earth… The president must give that order.” Videos by so-called "Islamist militias" have threatened to attack these “enemies of Islam.”

The “revolutionary” media however has come to the Bloc’s defence. Al-Watan newspaper warned the the Muslim Brotherhood may hire thugs to attack mosques and then blame it on the Bloc.

The Iranian-run FARS news agency, meanwhile, has waded in in an attempt to act as the voice of reason. It claims the Black Bloc is the result of a conspiracy to cause chaos in Egypt,  formed in collusion with Mossad and the Dubai police chief.

This is all despite the fact that there is no clear evidence the bloc is not just anyone who owns a black mask. The group first made its appearance in a YouTube video on Thursday, where it claimed "We are… seeking people's liberation, the fall of corruption and the toppling of the tyrant."

Confusingly, although the group claims it does not deal with the media, social media accounts have sprung up here, here and here, and people claiming to be from the group have appeared in Al Watan newspaper.

According to Ursula Lindsey on the Arabist:

Two (If I had to guess, 16-year-old) members also went on the private, "revolutionary" Tahrir TV channel and explained that their enemies are the Ministry of Interior and the Muslim Brotherhood, but that acts of violence and arson had been carried out by infiltrators not belonging to the group. The Facebook group itself immediately denied that the two masked teenagers on TV were members, and accused the station of staging the appearance to boost their audience.

All this has inspired weary cynicism from some Egyptian commentators. Lindsey adds:

The whole Black Bloc phenomenon is pretty silly. It's a symptom of the immaturity, lack of foresight and drift from peaceful (and seemingly fruitless) protesting to glamorized, indiscriminate, anti-authoritarian violence.

Mahmoud Salem in the Daily News Egypt has called the group a “glorified media invention”:

Luckily, we don’t have to worry about the Black Bloc‘s negative effect for long. Since anyone can be a Blockhead by virtue of having three friends who will join him in wearing black masks or their mum’s black nylon stockings, and since there are no real rules or structure to the group, offshoots and splinter groups will start forming immediately.

I personally cannot wait for the emergence of the Grey Bloc, their political arm that they will immediately disavow, or the green bloc, their fundamental Islamist offshoot, or the Pink Bloc, their radical feminist wing.

Blogger Zenobia wondered in Egyptian Chronicles:

Suddenly the anarchic group is spread like fire across the country through out the governorates. Since when anarchism is popular in Egypt let alone how a group like that to plan and organize itself in this way!!

With sales of black masks now on the up in Tahrir Square we could be seeing a lot more of this group.

Egyptian protesters, said to be members of Egypt's Black Bloc Anarchic group, burn tyres in central Cairo near Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty.
Show Hide image

Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.