Egypt’s 12,001 missing votes

How can Egypt’s elections be described as free and non-violent when the country has so many political prisoners?

The activists who returned to Tahrir Square last week have a variety of views on the elections [EPA]

Cairo, Egypt – 12,001. That is the minimum number of Egyptians who aren’t able to vote in parliamentary elections that began this week because they are prisoners of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Which begs the question: How can these elections be described as free and non-violent when so many Egyptians remain political prisoners of the country’s military junta?

The majority of the Egyptian and the interational media are characterising the voting as peaceful and relatively fair. Winners, especially the Islamist parties (at least of the time of writing), are celebrating their victories and losers are generally urging supporters to work with the process.

But many activists, who worked the hardest since January to bring real democracy to Egypt, have been left asking: What does this election mean when thousands are jailed merely for opposing those in power (or, for many, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time)? What do these elections mean when one of the country’s well-known bloggers, Alaa Abdel Fattah, can be held for weeks on charges surrounding his reporting of the military’s massacre of Coptic protesters in October, when voters are threatened with 500 Egyptian pound fines if they don’t vote, and when the military uses massive amounts of tear-gas, and even bullets on pro-democracy protesters whenever it feels its position threatened?

Activists not of one mind

Aida Seif ad-Dawla, a long-time human rights campaigner, summed up the view of the human rights community the morning after voting when she asked with an exasperated tone: “What about the 12,000? What about the martyrs? Even the attacks of yesterday after voting ended, which the media is downplaying when 88 people were hurt. It’s clear there can be no free elections under military rule.”

Certainly, the SCAF and those parties who stand the greatest chance of achieving core goals through the election, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), have a vested interest in convincing Egyptians and the world that the election is legitimate and heralds the beginning of a viable transition to democracy. For the activists who returned to Tahrir last week the question is not one of legitimacy, but of whether participating in or boycotting the electoral process offers the best strategy for wresting control from SCAF and the remnants of Egypt’s old regime.

For many leading activists, like well-known blogger Hossam El Hamalawy, the elections are little more than a farce, or “theatre,” that will only serve to strengthen the position of the old guard, albeit with some new faces. 

In an interview at Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau, El Hamalawy said: “This contest will be decided in the streets, not at the ballot box.”

Yet this view is not shared by all of the progressive opposition. Even Alaa Abdel Fattah’s wife, Manal Hassan, has boycotted the elections. Hassan supports the Revolution Continues coalition because it is the only group that is promoting a programme that includes issues such as a higher minimum wage and reforming the Interior Ministry. However, preliminary results show the coalition has not won a single seat so far, even in Cairo.

This doesn’t mean Hassan has any illusions about the coming months. In a conversation we had, as the second day of voting closed, Hassan, who is expecting the birth of the couple’s first child any day now, explained: “SCAF isn’t just trying to slow the process of democratisation down, it’s trying to reverse all the gains” won since February.

“I’m not sure the other parties understand this. Instead of demanding a full transfer of power they agree to a basic minimum of demands and making deals involving small games,” Hassan added.

While the main liberal parties may be playing small games, the larger contest concerns whether the backroom deals many commentators assume have been struck between the military and Islamist forces will be reinforced or challenged by the voting results, and the strength of the Tahrir occupiers who refuse to cede ground to the state for fear that leaving the Meidan too soon will enable the continuation of the still corrupt and violent old system.

There have been many accusations of voting irregularities. In Nasr City in Cairo, illegal politicking at polling stations was widespread, although it is hard to tell how different the outcome would have been without it. What is clear is that the Brotherhood and Salafi parties took few chances during the voting, despite their comfortable position going into the vote.

According to lawyer and activist, Yasser Shoukry, who has closely monitored the voting procedures, the violations by the parties go way beyond merely handing out flyers too close to polling booths.

“The polling officials at their computers are writing instructions literally on flyers for the Freedom and Justice Party and handing it to largely illiterate people, who see the crocodile symbol on the paper as they walk into the voting both and have no clue that it represents only one of many choices they have. Others are threatened with fines and encouraged with kilos of rice and similar enticements to cast their vote for one of the religious parties.”

Class war in the making?

“People haven’t had time to understand the system enough,” Shoukry explained to me while we walked around his neighbourhood, dodging the piles of garbage every 10 meters or so, a result of the decision to privatise garbage collection. 

“People feel they have no choice but to vote for the Brotherhood, but I have gone up to them and said, ‘Okay guys, you might win the elections, but we will win the revolution, because you will never be able to govern like this, with this level of corruption.’ Just look over there,” Shoukry continued, pointing to a large Brotherhood funded school across the street from his sister’s coffee house.

The large complex is located in the back of the a smaller public school.

“You can’t imagine the envy with which the public school kids look at the private school Brotherhood kids who, are much richer than them? It’s a class war in the making,” Shoukry said.

This dynamic points to one of the key problems that the elections and the emerging system is not really set up to address: the gross inequalities and poverty that has increasingly defined Egypt since Anwar Sadat’s “opening” to the West reversed the significant redistribution in wealth that occurred under Nasser.

While the Brotherhood might wind up with the most seats in Parliament, the reality is that Egypt faces a host of seemingly insurmountable problems and if a Brotherhood led alliance cannot tackle them successfully there is little reason to believe that votes will remain loyal the second time around.

“The Brotherhood were always victims and suffered a lot under Mubarak,” another activist added, “so people will give them this chance. But if they don’t bring serious economic development and full political reforms, beginning with the immediate release of the 12,000 political detainees, than the new government will be shown to be toothless, or worse, a replay of the old regime.”

Tahrir dynamics 

On Wednesday, Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian daily newspaper, reported that “only in Tahrir are the elections not centre stage.” But Tahrir has a habit of anticipating realities that erupt with a vengeance soon thereafter. Back in February the diehard Tahriris refused to leave the Meidan after Mubarak was toppled, declaring that the revolution was not finished as long as the military remained in power. They urged their fellow citizens not to go back to their normal lives until that much larger battle had been won. They were eventually cleaned out of the square, only to return in the coming months several times as the reality of the SCAF’s rule began to take shape.

Indeed, if the new parliament is able to wrest power from the SCAF in the coming months it will be thanks in large measure to the sacrifices of the Tahriris who faced tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and kidnappings in the last ten days to ensure real democracy was on everyone’s mind during the voting.

IN depth

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Even older activists who didn’t participate in last week’s battles are worried about the eclipse of Tahrir in Egyptian politics. One of the country’s most well-known activist judges, Zakaria Abdel Aziz, came into the Square around midnight one evening and declared that in the wake of the latest attacks, “If 500,000 people aren’t in Tahrir, it has no meaning.”

If the Islamist parties do as well as the early results indicate, their withdrawal from the Square and willingness to work with the SCAF might well prove to have been sound from a purely political perspective. With Egypt’s political system so endemically corrupt and the Brotherhood and Salafis viewed even by many religious Egyptians as increasingly aligned with the military/economic elite and the remnants of the Mubarak regime, a failure to bring significant changes in the short term could lead to an erosion of support among the millions of Egyptians who voted for them. 

For the revolutionary activists who are shaping up to be perhaps the biggest losers in the turn to electoral politics, two potential scenarios are emerging which worry them more than the actual vote tally. In the first, the newly empowered political forces align with their former oppressors in order to cement their political power while preserving the existing economic order (and especially the military’s role within it). In the second, the Brotherhood demands a real and rapid transfer of power from SCAF to a Parliament it controls, and used its position to attempt to shape a Constitution that enshrines and preserves its power rather than challenge the patrimonial structure of Egyptian politics and society more broadly to replace the Mubarak era New Democratic Party/military elites as the centre of power.

The preliminary results do not bode well for an Egyptian political universe no longer controlled by a conservative wealthy elite. The winners so far – the Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafi Nour Party, and the billionaire Naguib Sawiris’s Egyptian Bloc – were precisely those who had unlimited campaign funds, while the grass roots revolutionary parties seem to have done poorly.

On Tuesday night, around 1AM, less than 1,000 Tahrir defenders wandered the Meidan armed with sticks or nursed wounds sustained in repelling attacks, while an artist sat in the “Revolution Artists Union” right next to one of the main field clinics, painting the trunk of a tree with the caption “Tree of Tahrir” written above it.

The symbolism was both obvious and poignant: As Egypt moves from revolution to politics, the lessons and spirit of Tahrir will have to be rooted in the country’s evolving political psyche. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone in Tahrir had much faith in the likely winners of the election adopting that spirit, as they have, for all Egyptians.

“Even the cops and Baltigiyya [thugs], after all are not inherently bad, but are the product of an oppressive and sick system,” as one activist put it.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, political analyst and former Brotherhood youth member, put it most succinctly: “The continued detention of 12,000 civilians is a crime and the revolution is not over. But protest and voting are two parallel paths that can work in synergy, as happened in Chile and Brazil. The key is not next year, but the next five years.”

For Houdaiby, if all goes well the longer term will witness the ascent of a new political class “stemming from local politics and other social incubators, more attached to people and more capable of representing their will and aspirations.”

Whether they actually have the power to translate those aspiration into policies that bring greater freedom and development is, of course, the question that neither Houdaiby nor any other commentator can answer. But with Islamist parties seemingly gaining the majority the parliamentary vote thus fart at the time of writing, it is a question a lot of people are sure to be asking come morning.

The Brotherhood and its electoral allies could well surprise skeptics and focus both on removing the army from political power while drafting a constitution that ensures basic civil and political rights for all Egyptians and encourages a fair and sustainable restructuring of the economy. The first test will be the how far the election winners will go to free their 12,000 fellow citizens who have been not merely disenfranchised, but literally removed from the country’s political life.

If in the coming weeks there is no move to demand their release, then there is a good chance that the fears of those who sacrificed the most for the revolution that began on January 25 will be realised, and the new system will in fact be little more than a retread of the old one. But if the newly elected parliamentarians demand freedom for Alaa Abdel Fattah and the other far less known prisoners, the tree of freedom planted in Tahrir might just have a chance of taking root in the coming years.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.