On Egypt’s first (sort of) free and fair presidential election

So, it has come at last: fifteen months after Mubarak was forced to resign, Egyptians will vote today for a new president.  There is a lot that was unedifying in the lead up to this moment: badly organized parliamentary elections, the disqualification of a number of front-running presidential candidates, waves of street protests, SCAF shenanigans, the unwelcome felool resurgence, and on and on.  But for the first time ever in an Egyptian presidential election, no one knows in advance who will win.  Whatever else might be true, that is something remarkable.

As we go into the vote, the most interesting analysis I have read comes from Mahmoud Salem, who blogs as Sandmonkey.  After a compelling argument about voting blocs in Egypt and why Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, respectively the leading center-Islamist and center-secular candidates, might not even make it to the run-off round, he writes:

Egyptians do not vote for centrist parties. Take the case of ElAdl Party for instance, which is in my opinion a great party filled with honest revolutionaries and genuine leaders, when it entered the parliamentary elections focusing on winning the centrist votes. They showed themselves as the alternative to the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood controlled Freedom and Jusitice Party and the Nour Salafi Party or the thinly veiled secularism of the Egyptian bloc, and ended up being the biggest losers in the elections, winning only one seat. Why? They were too centrist, which the average Egyptian voter viewed as attempting to not take a side, and instead voted for someone who will. […] It underlines a fundamental political truth that everyone in the Egyptian political scene seems to ignore: You can’t synthetically create a center. A center is formed when two opposing forces of equal power and clearly different ideologies are fighting for control, thus creating the political balance that allows a center to emerge. This doesn’t exist in Egypt, which is why AbulFotouh is turning more and more islamist to appease his new salafi supporters, and Moussa is finding himself up in shit-creek without a paddle.

On a final note, the Egyptian presidential election has one final achievement to add to the list of the Egyptian revolution’s achievements so far: It has killed all ideologies. We have leftists supporting an Islamist candidate, liberals supporting a Nasserite leftists, A revolutionary workers-rights crusader candidate who didn’t get the support of the workers and ended up only getting nominated by MP signatures from parties that he considered anti-revolutionary, and revolutionaries who were strongly opposed to strong executive powers now begging for a constitution that doesn’t turn Egypt into a parliamentary system now that the Islamists have taken over the Parliament.

I would add that, to me, there is nothing specifically Egyptian about the difficulties centrists face in trying to form a majority constituency: it is the nature of a fractured, multi-party system.  Two party systems, as in the US, are ruthless enforcers of big tent constituencies — which, in turn, push candidates towards the center — because victory comes with 50% plus one vote.  Multi-party systems, as in Israel or Lebanon, breed extremism because constituencies are narrow and a governing majority is formed through post-election negotiation, which often looks a lot like hostage taking as minor figures representing small but essential voting blocs hold the balance of power.  Egypt is something in between: the Muslim Brotherhood has a large bloc in parliament, but the presidency is anyone’s guess.  For all that, this historic election was brought about by the revolution yet, though the candidates cover a wide spectrum of positions, none truly represent the part of the spectrum that led the revolution.  There are many reasons for that.  One is that a revolt of the young has led to an election of the old.  That’s too bad.  Maybe next time.


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