Democracy versus Tahrir

The youth of Egypt’s revolution did not give their lives so that people could vote, but for social justice and freedom.

Despite the jubliance of the uprising, counter-revolutionary groups still hold a great deal of influence [Reuters]
Despite the jubliance of the uprising, counter-revolutionary groups still hold a great deal of influence [Reuters]

Cairo, Egypt –
Not too far north of this city, past the lush fields of the Nile delta and roads lined with fire red flowers that greet summer in Egypt, is the city of Shibin el-Kom, or simply Shibin as it is referred to by residents. The capital of the Monofaya district is at first glance a smaller, quieter version of Cairo.

Amid the country’s first competitive presidential elections, Shibin’s buildings and fences have been plastered with the faces of the race’s top five candidates. The city’s university is, like those in other major cities, abuzz with passionate students discussing the country’s future political path. The youth, like their urban counterparts elsewhere in the country, are mostly proponents of revolutionary ideas and figures. Marches have flooded the streets of Shibin over the past several weeks, protesting the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the recent court decisions which have amplified its power. To understand the real political dynamics of this governorate, however, one must look beneath the surface.

The rural heartland of Egypt departed from national voting trends in its overwhelming support for Ahmed Shafiq.

The presidential elections have shown that Monofaya, along with all four other Nile delta governorates, is unique in its espousal of the Mubarak regime. The rural heartland of Egypt departed from national voting trends in its overwhelming support for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s prime minister, who was ousted by popular pressure a month after the fall of the dictator. In Monofaya, more than half of those who came out to vote in the first round of elections, and even more in the second round, did so for Shafiq, making the governorate home to the highest proportion of votes for the former air marshal. A closer look at Monofaya reveals the major reasons for what many deemed as surprising election results and indicates the major flaws of the revolution and the obstacles that lie ahead for those continuing the struggle.

To many, Egypt’s first round election results were baffling. Commentators, both on a national and international level, speculated that the final race would be between the more moderate candidates Abdelmoneim Aboulfotouh and Amr Moussa. Polls, while variable and evidently unreliable, often presented the two as far more popular than their more divisive opponents.

The key to Shafiq’s victory

On the ground, however, things were very different. Aboulfotouh and Moussa’s more western style campaigns – double-decker tour buses, catchy posters, tunes and all – proved insufficient against the organised and far reaching apparata of the state and the Muslim Brotherhood. A closer look at election results shows a noteworthy disparity in voting trends between urban and rural centres; it is largely because of the country’s rural population that both Shafiq and Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi were able to secure their first round victories.

In Monofaya lies the secret to Shafiq’s victory, and an indication of the strength of the forces that revolutionaries must dismantle before beginning anew. On the Nile bank of Shibin sits a modest school, painted in a bright orange and teeming with children. Decades ago, Hosni Mubarak was one of those children. Several blocks down, a bridge leads to the small town of Kafr el-Meselha where Mubarak was born. The fallen dictator’s youth was spent among the towns and cities of the governorate. His local popularity, however, is doubtful. Monofites count the three times that Mubarak visited the governorate during his 30-year rule as evidence of his disinterest.

“While Mubarak himself may not have remaining influence on his hometown, many more important symbols of the regime, namely [the NDP], loom large in Monofaya.

While Mubarak himself may not have a remaining influence on his hometown, many more important symbols of the regime, namely members of the dissolved National Democratic Party, loom large in Monofaya.

Past Kafr el-Meselha lays Mit Abul-Qum, the hometown of Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar el-Sadat. Unlike Mubarak, Sadat visited his town frequently and his family retains local influence. Talaat el-Sadat was an influential member of the NDP and was appointed as its head after Mubarak’s forced resignation from the party. Despite reports of friction between the Sadat and Mubarak families, the Sadats remain known as vanguards of the NDP, a party founded, after all, by Anwar al-Sadat. Several family members associated with the NDP, including Effat el-Sadat, represented their home Tala district in parliament under Mubarak.

The town of Bagur, on the outskirts of Shibin, was home to NDP member Kamal el-Shazly, one of the country’s longest-serving parliamentarians. His 46 years in parliament ended with his death in 2010, but his influence still reigns. His complex in Bagur, consisting of his home, conference centre, mosque and burial site, is hard to miss. Shazly was notorious for rigging elections, partly by cutting electricity while votes were being counted, and is locally known for assassination attempts on those who dared run against him.

Ahmed Ezz, the business tycoon responsible for the widely resented steel monopoly and a senior NDP member now imprisoned under corruption charges, represented Monofaya in the lower house of parliament. His factories dominate the governorate, in the towns of Menouf, Sirs and Sadat.

NDP’s last chance

While the revolution led many to believe that the NDP had taken its last breath, they could not have been more mistaken. The parliamentary elections seemed to mark the end of the Mubarak regime. The old faces of the NDP were largely absent from the race. In Monofaya, the tycoons who represented the governorate for decades were imprisoned, deceased or seemingly disempowered. Mohamed Kamal, who had ran unsuccessfully against Shazly in Bagur for decades and dodged a number of assassination attempts, finally took his seat in parliament.

We would have made posters, and held up our shoes… Shafiq is not popular among students here.

– Yousri Ramzy, student at Shibin’s medical university

But parliamentary elections were largely deceptive. Over decades, the NDP has worked to create a wide base of loyalists, and nowhere is it stronger than in Monofaya. Throughout the Mubarak era, influential NDP members granted favours and positions in the police, armed forces and judicial system to a wide network of allies. Presidential elections have shown that the NDP apparatus is still alive, and that its network can be mobilised at call.

Hamid Aboul Magd, a member of the dissolved NDP from Bagur, spoke of the party with pride. “It might have some flaws,” he said. “But the country won’t be better if we just leave the party. We need to continue and make it stronger.” Aboul Magd, whose father was also an NDP member and served in the upper house of parliament, hopes that Shafiq is elected president because “it is the NDPs chance at survival”.

Aboul Magd’s belief seems to be a widespread consensus among NDP members in the area, who used their resources to garner votes for Shafiq. During the former air marshal’s several campaign visits to the governorate, he spent time in Bagur as well as other NDP strongholds where members of the dissolved party filled his rallies and gathered locals to attend. Shafiq’s locations were chosen wisely; no visits were paid to the capital of the district, Shibin, where residents suggest that he would have been met unwelcomingly by educated youth.

Yousri Ramzy, a student at Shibin’s medical university and a former member of the presidential campaign for Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, pondered the possibilities – were Shafiq to have visited. “We would have made posters, and held up our shoes,” he said, adding that “Shafiq is not popular among students here.”

From the pharmacy across from the Shazly complex in Bagur, Dr Nabil Khalil says that he watched Shafiq posters go in and out of the conference room for weeks. Khalil estimates that the vast majority of his town was granted favours by the NDP and that many local positions, especially senior ones, were open only for the friends of Shazly.

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But in the country’s first “democratic” presidential elections, the NDP had to use new mechanisms to reach power. Overtly direct fraud, such as the stuffing of ballot boxes that guaranteed victory in the past, was no longer an option. To secure electoral victory, the NDP took note from the Brotherhood, far more experienced at racking votes.

Paying for votes?

The MB has long been known for its charity machine. During elections, handouts in poor rural areas are reportedly exchanged for votes. NDP members, who have financial resources aplenty and much at stake in these elections, were generous. In the days before the elections, NDP allies in rural areas throughout Monofaya held feasts where they handed out meat and asked mostly uneducated locals to check off the “stairs”, Shafiq’s symbol, in exchange. Ahmed Galal, a university student in Shibin, said he encountered offers of 150 pounds ($25) in exchange for a public Shafiq endorsement from NDP loyalists. Unlike campaign advertisements found in urban centres, many banners in Monofaya listed the local families who endorsed Shafiq. In an atmosphere where particular families hold influence, leading names were exploited to garner votes.

On election days, air-conditioned buses carried rural workers and farmers to polling stations and are rumoured to have offered between 100 and 200 pounds ($16-$32) per vote. Employers with interests in the election results pressured their workers to vote for Shafiq and provided transportation to polling stations. Many speculate that the Ezz family spent effusively on votes. Dr Nahid Agour, an active Bagur resident, says that the NDP members primarily targeted the poor and uneducated, those who have little interest in what the “stairs” represent but enjoy the monetary handouts.

“The NDP is seeking its revenge,” she said. “They think that they can bring back what was taken from them, and are willing to use their resources profusely to meet their ends.”

The greatest flaw of the revolution is that young activists failed to forcefully map out the path that would lead to the goals that they envisioned. To the Egyptian revolutionaries and their proponents, the results of the first round of the presidential elections presented a clear defeat. They were an insult to the hundreds of youth who gave their lives for their country and to the thousands, perhaps millions, more who sacrificed for its sake. On Mohamed Mahmoud Street off of Tahrir Square, where possibly the greatest number of revolutionaries fell, a boldly painted slogan reads in sarcasm: “Forget the dead, stick with elections.”

The revolutionaries’ disappointment with a democratic process points to a greater realisation. Abdelrahman Mansour, one of the youths who ignited the revolution with their call for protests on January 25, reminds us to listen to the demands that came directly from protesters. “Democracy,” he said, “as it is most simply defined, was not one of those primary demands.” The chants of the revolutionaries were very clear in their purpose: in addition to the ousting of Mubarak, protesters insisted on “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity”. They called for transparency, an end to corruption, and accountability, for both past crimes and ongoing ones. The failure of Mubarak to provide the population with these needs was the key impetus for his overthrow; the fact that he did not have legitimate electoral support worked in favour of the revolutionaries, but was not their primary grievance.

Mahmoud Ramzy, a revolutionary activist from Shibin, points out that “democracy does not necessarily bring what’s better”. The recent elections have shown us that in the short term, democratic victories are best secured by those with powerful networks. The deeply entrenched NDP and the decades-old MB left little chance for the spontaneous revolutionaries.

It seems to be the ultimate injustice that young people die so that their fellow citizens may enjoy greater rights, and that those citizens use those rights to elect their oppressors for selfish purposes. The revolutionaries did not give their lives so that their fellow citizens could vote – rather they did so for the greater causes of freedom and social justice. Perhaps under ideal conditions of political awareness and moral values, the two go hand in hand. In today’s Egypt, however, they could not be further apart. The choice should then be in the hands of those who sacrificed the most, and not those who are willing to sell a privilege for which so many gave their lives.

While it seems that elections have altogether lost relevance as SCAF has recently usurped sweeping executive and legislative powers, they remain an important indicator of the sort of apparatus that must be dismantled if the revolutionaries carry any hopes of reaching their goals via democratic means.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.

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