“This was a campaign for social behavioral change,” he said. “I would ask people, ‘What do you do when you’re frustrated?’ And they would say, ‘I march.’ ”
His reply became almost standard, he said: “If the people who marched actually voted, we wouldn’t have to march in the first place.”
That’s an NYT article from a couple days ago, about Obama’s hopes to win Arizona by galvanizing the Latino vote next year. The situation for Latinos in Arizona and liberals and leftists in Egypt is quite different. But…
We always thought the entreaties (from various quarters) about the need for liberals to get organized in the run-up to the elections slightly missed the point. The young people who would have been, in any normal election, the foot soldiers of the liberal parties, the people who were willing to knock on doors and do other thankless tasks for little or no pay, for an ideal, were instead preoccupied with the ongoing revolution.
We know that many of the young revolutionaries would never cop to being liberals, but we’re also willing to propose, and maybe we’re wrong, that much of what has happened in terms of SCAF and police abuses and failures has led to a situational radicalization, polarizing opinions that will move to the center if and when the systematic abuses stop.* This has nothing to do with selling out or other pig-headed notions of ideological purity, only that in a properly functioning political system many of these people probably do not subscribe to radical politics. (Remember that the debates about boycotting were not generally because Tahrir wanted to create a dictatorship of the proletariat, they occurred because people questioned whether a legitimate election could or should be held under the current military junta that the week before was, if not responsible, at least complicit in the deaths of at least 41 people and the injury of thousands.)
Even if we are wrong, and the vast majority of Tahrir regulars are and remain radical leftists, so be it. Egypt will have a strong left, all the better to counter the already existing radical right represented by the Nour Party, and, we expect, some of more provincial-minded FJP MPs that will turn up in parliament.
The left was bound to suffer in these elections no matter how much energy went into organizing for them. We won’t make the argument here, but there is an argument to be made that the millioneyat and sit-ins (some of which may have overstayed their welcome), which we argued above depleted the organizational power of the liberal and leftist parties, were worth it in terms of gaining concessions from SCAF, as compared to whatever extra votes the left would have won had they maintained a single-minded focus on the elections.
The simple fact is that the Brotherhood was always bound to win big in free elections. They did relatively well in patently unfree elections, in 2006. Those who voted for the Salafis, the big “surprise” of the elections, probably weren’t going to vote for liberals anyway. Fascists, on the other hand, should be kicking themselves for not forming a party. Hard luck, Zpider.
We can rehearse the reasons why, but we’d rather not because we figure that if you read this far you know about the Brotherhood’s social services, iron discipline, etc. During the Mubarak years, of course, the left was not in a position to provide social services because non-religion-based civil society was systematically crushed or coopted by the state. Whether the state didn’t crush the Brotherhood because it couldn’t or because it was useful as a way of delivering social services the government was too incompetent or otherwise unable to provide or because he feared Sadat’s fate if he cracked down too hard on the Islamists is immaterial, as is whether the Salafi trend was actively encouraged as an MB counterweight or an organic phenomenon or whatever. (How the Salafis switched their former political quietism to active participation continues to fascinate us, however, and we wish someone would write about it.)
The important thing is that now and in the coming period, liberals no longer face these constraints and can start providing services, if that’s what it takes to win votes or get their well-shod feet in the door in areas without large “natural” liberal constituencies. Even without the political benefits, food aid, tutoring and other help with school, clinics, etc. are all worthwhile uses of time and money. Even despite the continuing kerfuffle over foreign funding, we imagine there are enough rich, liberal Egyptians in Egypt or abroad who can afford to fund these initiatives, just as we’re sure that many of them have been funding similar initiatives, just not under the umbrella of a party or political movement.
On a shorter time horizon, there’s no reason why the liberal parties can’t crib from the FJP’s tactics in the first round, of having laptops at polling stations to tell people where they should vote, passing out fliers, etc. Many or most voters in all democracies are low-information, and perhaps in Egypt moreso, owing to lack of internet connectivity and an execrable state media. If such people are making last-minute decisions based on things like some nice person helping you with voting procedures, there’s absolutely no reason not to try. Even if there aren’t enough laptops or volunteers to go to every polling station, as the FJP apparently did, they can go to some. At the very least it will provide data about whether this type of voter outreach has a noticeable effect on vote tallies in a given district compared to similar districts where no volunteer was present.
A couple final thoughts: The Egyptian left was famously strong in the 1970s and there’s no reason it can’t be again. One thing we always find odd is when people, often graven-faced, say things like, “Egypt has changed since (insert decade)” as though it has now reached the culmination of its historical trajectory and will in the future be immune to change. That’s obviously not the case. If we were liberal or leftist Egyptians, we would be revisiting the history of the 1970s left, not to read again the well-known story that ended with Mubarak assuming the presidency, but to learn or relearn what organizational forms the left took at the time. We’re also particularly interested in how the elections in Mahalla will go, though we have no idea who’s running or even in which round they’ll take place.
* We felt it ourselves when we arrived in Tahrir last Thursday, upon seeing the injured of Mohamed Mahmoud. Even now we question whether we should be writing about Egypt in a sort of “rational” way. That is part of the reason we haven’t written about the country for a long time, because we don’t, from our perch in the Gulf, have any feel for it anymore as a lived experience, always quite intense and now moreso, and as such are at a loss for words, despite following it quite closely.