Use stalemate to rebuild

Homayoun Azad sees a parallel with Iran in the Egyptian presidential election

The critical illness of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak adds an ironic twist to the political crisis unfolding in the aftermath of the presidential elections. While the deposed dictator (apparently) ebbs away, the army he was once a commander of seeks to impose Mubarak-style repression and is vigorously reasserting itself in the face of the Islamist-dominated parliament that emerged in January.

After Egypt’s supreme court dissolved that parliament on June 13, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a constitutional decree just as the polls were closing for the presidential run-off on June 17. The decree granted the SCAF wide budgetary, legislative and military decision-making powers, including over internal security. Transparently, this is a ‘soft’ coup to render the office of president impotent and to undercut the Muslim Brotherhood’s power base in parliament.

In purely formal terms, the supreme court may have a point about possible foul play in the parliamentary elections. Egyptian and international observers reported a number of voting irregularities in the second round, with the MB accused of “systemic violations”, including bribes, intimidation and threats against supporters of its opponents (although blaming the MB alone would be a little rich, given the machinations and anti-democratic shenanigans of its opponents too).

But the court’s key complaint is that a third of the parliament’s members were illegitimate, in that they were elected for the section reserved for independents, while actually being members of a political party, most notably the MB. This may have some basis in fact, but the blatant cynicism of the ruling clearly provoked widespread anger. The truth is that this practice was rife under Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

For instance, in the November- December 2005 elections (rigged, naturally), the MB stood as independents and, for tactical reasons, only contested 170 constituencies. It gained an impressive 88-strong faction in the People’s Assembly, a phalanx that represented around 20% of the available seats and an increase from just 17 in the previous parliament. The MB’s deep social roots have been confirmed once again by the latest elections.

Today’s situation is very fraught and is extremely unlikely to be resolved one way or another by the announcement of the presidential winner on June 21. Mass protests and possible clashes are predicted. A large protest against the clampdown took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on June 19 and there was a sizable demonstration in Alexandria. More of the same is promised.

It seems fairly clear from anecdotal evidence and ad hoc exit polls (admittedly mostly conducted by MB supporters) that in any straight contest the MB’s Mohamed Mursi would be the victor. If the army rig the result and the erstwhile Mubarak crony, Shafik, is shoehorned into office, what will be the reaction of the masses? Will they be simply content to accept the result - an outcome that in effect would be a defeat for the mass movement that saw off Mubarak last year?

Clearly, the events of the past week or so have shown the centrality of the demand for a democratic people’s militia in Egypt to replace the corrupt, anti-democratic bulwark that is the military. But like so many other demands of a democratic programme that the workers’ movement and its allies should be fighting for now in the fluid context of post-revolutionary Egypt, the problem is precisely one of agency. In other words, after the years of oppression under Mubarak - let alone those imposed by the British until 1952 - the workers’ movement has been denied the light and air it needs to consolidate, thrive and enlighten itself.

Of course, the protests against the SCAF soft coup will continue. And any attempt to rig the result of the presidential election will cause outrage too. However, if Mursi is declared the winner, that would be no victory for the working class or progressive forces. The reality is that the electorate was faced with a choice between two reactionaries in the second round of the poll.

There is no question that a vote for Shafik was a vote against the revolution. On the other hand, a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mursi was a vote for the reactionary element of the opposition to the old regime that is the vehicle of counterrevolution within the popular movement itself. Those comrades such as the Socialist Workers Party and its co-thinkers in Egypt who advocated such a course made a huge mistake.

Perhaps the best outcome under these circumstances would be a general stalemate between the two reactionary contending forces, with neither side able to gain undisputed control of the state apparatus - a prolonged state of fragile balance that allows the workers’ and progressive movement to gather strength. Certainly, there are signs that leaders of the MB are prepared to compromise with the army. This is, after all, a political movement that has historically been characterised by a strategically patient approach to the realisation of its reactionary programme - it will think long and hard about any full-on confrontation. A stand-off may allow a certain breathing space for left and democratic forces to recoup.

Certainly, the high rate of abstention in the presidential election indicated a real feeling of alienation and the dissatisfaction of many Egyptians with the choice on offer. Some observers claimed that just 15% of eligible voters went to the ballot boxes on June 16, with an even smaller proportion doing so the next day (official excuses apparently included the hot weather). Even the head of Egypt’s Supreme Presidential Election Commission, Farouk Sultan, was only claiming a 40% turnout. That would represent a 6% drop compared to the first round in May and a significantly lower turnout than the parliamentary elections. There was a call for a boycott of the second round, particularly in Cairo, from the Mobteloon (‘vote-spoilers’) group, and this would have struck a chord: many felt revulsion against both candidates.

Perhaps the political figure that personified this mood best was Hamdeen Sabahi, a candidate in the first round of the presidential elections who publicly announced his intention not to vote in the second. The vote for this left Nasserite - 22% and top of the poll in Cairo, Alexandra and Port Said - was encouraging, the severe limitations of his programme notwithstanding. Sabahi called for a raised minimum wage, opposition to austerity and solidarity with the poorest sections of Egyptian society, giving partial expression to a potential base of support for a genuine working class alternative - “something to build on”, as Paul Demarty has observed in this paper (June 7).

In Iran, there was considerable sympathy for the Mobteloon. Many comrades there see a parallel between MB’s success in these elections and the referendum that consolidated the power of another Islamic movement riding on the back of a revolutionary upheaval. In April 1979 the Iranian people - recently freed from the shah’s dictatorship - were presented with the following simple question: “Do you want a constitutional monarchy? Or do you want an Islamic Republic?” The answer then seemed obvious. Hardly anyone could be found who wanted anything to do with a monarchy, constitutional or not. Presented with this ‘either-or’, the majority of Iranians who had participated in the revolution voted in favour of the Islamic Republic.

Thirty-three years later, after the appalling experience of the corruption, the nepotism, the repressive barbarity of that religious state, few Iranians would do the same again (it is hardly surprising that in Egypt Shafik used the scare tactic of warning voters that the MB was “trying to turn the country into another Iran”). Yet to this day, the Tehran regime claims legitimacy through that referendum - it continues to use it to justify the horrors it has imposed on the people of Iran.

So when comrades in the SWP tell us that “despite revolutionary activists’ anger at the Brotherhood, voting for Mursi … is an important step in building a revolutionary movement” (Socialist Worker June 12), we who have been through that experience in Iran can only shudder at the thought.