Out to roll back the revolution

The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are only temporary allies, argues Eddie Ford

Ever since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February the army has clung on to power in Egypt. If anything, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces led by field marshal Hussein Tantawi has spent the intervening months entrenching its political control: Mubarakism without Mubarak. Not that we should be astonished, since the military has long thought that it can run the country as a fiefdom - with its own gleaming shopping malls, banking conglomerates, fancy villas and hotels and all the other manifestations of super-privilege. Army capital dominates capitalism in Egypt.

In the build-up to the elections, which began on November 28, the junta unleashed a vicious wave of repression, as the protestors flocked back to Tahrir Square - including the use of government-hired goons, a tactic notably deployed by Mubarak in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. Then thugs on camels tried to force demonstrators out of Tahrir Square, whilst on November 29 an “unidentified group” entered the square and attacked protestors. But now the elections have begun.

After suffering decades of dictatorship, it is only natural that millions of ordinary Egyptians are eager to vote - want to decide the future of their country. Of course, these elections are a huge concession by the military regime - which is claiming credit for them and their orderly nature. But they are also high-risk. Not because the left will make any kind of significant showing. It won’t. But because they could easily lead to all manner of uncontrollable consequences.

US and UK imperialism would have liked to have seen the continuation of the Mubarak regime (perhaps with his son, Gamal, succeeding him). With Mubarak gone, imperialism would be quite happy with military rule fronted by a puppet civilian prime minister. Such an arrangement could be relied upon to introduce ‘stability’ and the ‘rule of law’ - their ‘rule of law’. Their ultimate aim being to roll back the democratic revolution that began with the uprising against Mubarak and is still unfolding as part of the larger pan-Arab national movement, which by very definition is an explosive rebellion against the imperialist-imposed order in that region. Therefore, for US-UK imperialism the ‘Egyptian problem’ has to be neutralised.

Complex elections

The results of the elections will not be known for some considerable time. Out of a total population of about 80 million, there are around 45 million eligible voters - plus several million more abroad who can also cast a ballot in their local Egyptian embassy. The entire electoral process is diabolically complex, bureaucratic and interminably protracted - just as intended, of course. No doubt the tortuously Byzantine electoral process helps to dampen down the democratic enthusiasm of the masses. And the potential for fraud and gerrymandering is vast.

Hence the elections are being carried out in three staggered phases with nine governorates voting over two days in each round for the lower house of parliament (people’s assembly). There are 6,700 candidates and 47 registered political parties/organisations. The first round includes the major urban centres of Cairo and Alexandria. The second is on December 14 and will feature Giza, Suez and the important upper Egyptian cities of Aswan and Sohag. The final round will be on January 3 and includes the whole of the Sinai peninsula, as well as Egypt’s western desert and parts of the Nile delta.

Seven days after each round there will be run-off elections for those constituencies where no individual candidate achieved 50% of the vote, which will surely be most of them, and the final results will be announced on January 13. After that, the whole merry-go-round will start all over again with elections to the upper house (the shura) on January 29. Then there will be presidential elections, in theory anyway, sometime in March or April. By the time it is all over, the whole process will have taken four months.

The elections are being conducted using a mixture of ‘first past the post’ and proportional representation. In each constituency, electors vote once for a party list by PR and twice for individual candidates - who can either represent a party/organisation or be classified as independent. Furthermore, the two ballots for individuals are separate - one to choose a “professional” candidate and one for a “worker or peasant” candidate.

This is a hangover from a Nasser-era law stipulating that half the 508-strong parliament must consist of “workers and farmers”. A regulation, needless to say, that is wide open to abuse - meaning that a winning candidate could be disqualified on some essentially arbitrary definition of their profession or purported economic-sociological background.

Eventually, if the system works as planned, one-third of those in the lower house of parliament (166 MPs) will be elected using the majoritarian system and the other two-thirds will be elected using party-list PR. Naturally, the elections to the shura have similar rules, though 90 of the body’s 270 members are directly appointed by the president - not elected. Similarly, there are 10 unelected, ‘nominated’ seats in the lower house.

At the end of all this electoral rigmarole - which will give pleasure only to psephologists - the Egyptian masses will be presented with a parliament that is toothless and short-lived, given that its primary purpose is to form a special constitutional assembly that will draw up a new constitution in 2012. Once a new constitution is approved in a national referendum, new elections will be held in 2013 for the presidency and, in due course, a fresh parliament as well. As for the ‘parliament’ itself, it cannot actually form a government or choose ministers - which is to say that it is totally void of any real powers and exists just to provide a cover for the military.

There are numerous other ways in which the Egyptian electoral system acts against democracy. For example, to register as a political party requires a relatively substantial amount of money, which ipso facto makes it extremely difficult for organisations not connected to big business or the army (or both). So registering was all but impossible for smaller groups, particularly those of the left. Meanwhile, of course, the junta will remain safely in power - busily consolidating its control over political life. So in that sense, whether you vote or not, or whoever you vote for, there is only one result - an army win.

Rival blocs

So far, the government has not yet released any official figures on voter turnout. But observers from the Muslim Brotherhood said that the vote for their Freedom and Justice Party in the nine governorates which voted was between 30 and 32%, and in Cairo that figure was around 27%. Many of the polling stations have gender-segregated voting.

Clearly the FJP is well organised and has its eyes on winning around 30% of the seats in parliament. It is also bending over backwards in order to burnish its ‘moderate’ credentials - it selected a Coptic Christian, Rafiq Habib, to be its vice-president and claims it is “open to all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts alike”.

The main battle is between various loose-floating electoral coalitions or blocs. The MB is organised around the Democratic Alliance and includes the Justice Party, New Tomorrow and Al-Karama (Dignity), whilst the Free Egyptians Party heads the Egyptian Bloc, composed of secularist and left-leaning parties such as the Social Democrat Party, Freedom Egypt and Tagammu (National Progressive Unionist Party).

There are two other blocs, one being the Islamist Alliance - which consists of Salafist or ultra-conservative parties like the Al-Nour Party of Light, Authenticity, and Building and Development. The other electoral coalition is the Revolution Continues Alliance, containing groups like the Socialist Populist Alliance Party, Egyptian Socialist Party, Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution and Egyptian Current Party (interestingly, the latter includes those segments of the MB’s youth wing which broke away from the parent organisation).

Finally there are a series of ‘non-aligned’ parties, including Al-Adl (Justice Party), which likes to describe itself as a “non-ideological” movement trying to strike a “third way” between Islamism and liberalism/secularism - not to mention al-Wafd, one of the country’s oldest political parties, but tarnished by its participation in previous sham elections held by Mubarak. The latter’s National Democratic Party was officially banned/disbanded by the military government.

However, after Egypt’s supreme court overturned a lower court decision that could have barred the felool (‘remnants’) of NDP party from standing for public office, several Mubarak-era acolytes and cronies have formed their own parties - including former NDP secretary general, Hossam Badrawi, and it is quite likely that their candidates would do well in rural areas, where local power-brokers have long been affiliated to the NDP and naturally do not want to cede political control.

But, hardly surprisingly, this ‘re-legalisation’ of the NDP has not proved to be popular with the Egyptian masses - the memory of oppression and torture is too fresh. Therefore in an effort to appease protestors, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces promised to enact a “treachery law” that would trump the decision of the supreme courts and stop ex-NDP members from running. Confusion still reigns as to how they will implement this law or ban, if at all, which presumably would require the reprinting of millions of ballot papers. You can bet your last Egyptian pound that ex-NDP apparatchiks are standing and a good number will be elected.

Muslim Brotherhood

Despite the decades of oppression it suffered under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the MB had the relatively open space of the mosques with which to spread its message and, even more importantly, develop an organisational structure and a political chain of command - a ‘luxury’ denied to the opposition secularist and left parties.

Most expect the FJP to secure the largest bloc of seats, but not win an overall majority - unlike Tunisia and Morocco, where ‘moderate’ Islamist parties have come to power. However, the MB will be expecting to be part of a governing bloc of parties and choose the prime minister. From this vantage point it will challenge the army ... and expect it to compromise. Some commentatators predict that the MB and its allies will gain around 65% of the parliamentary seats and hence have a “stranglehold” over power. Many rightly worry about what this will mean for women’s rights and the Copts. But there is also the prospect of a struggle between parliament and the military. Internationally an MB-dominated government would doubtless have far-reaching consequences, especially when it comes to the Camp David peace deal with Israel.

There is a certain irony in the MB’s electoral success. As everyone knows, it was not exactly the instigator of the anti-Mubarak revolt or the Arab spring in general - initially it was hardly anywhere to be seen. By instinct, the MB was initially hostile to the movement that gathered around Tahrir Square, if not fearful - and for good reason, given the overwhelmingly secular and modern-looking nature of the first protests. Indeed, the MB’s lack of consistency and intransigence was exposed - at first it dismissed negotiations with the Mubarak regime and then agreed to them.

The MB and the military council share a common aim - the throttling of the democratic revolution. The MB has continuously agitated for elections since the fall of Mubarak precisely to marginalise the most radical elements in Egyptian society. The first step was the referendum on amending the constitution back in March, with MB pushing for staggered elections. In this way, the MB’s de facto alliance with the military is designed to restore order.

Communists make no bones of the fact that the MB is a totally reactionary organisation - it is no friend or ally of Egyptian workers. Of course, communists are quite prepared to do deals with the devil if necessary - including Islamists. The difference being, though, that we will never foster illusions in their progressive potential. Quite the opposite. While we may strike together with them against a common enemy, the forces of communism and the forces of political Islam represent radical opposites.