From unruly politics to ballot boxes: rethinking the terms of democratic engagement in Egypt

Mariz Tadros

On the surface of it, the latest protests in Tahrir Square seem like the January uprisings all over again: last Friday, the authorities warn protestors to vacate Tahrir at night, they don’t and the security strike back, which rather than instilling fear in the hearts of people only brings more and more crowds to the street. The same tactics of elimination are used as in the January protests: snipers targeting protestor’s eyes, the use of tear gas and brutal beatings. Just as Mubarak’s government showed a complete disconnect from the pulse on the street by making the kind of speeches that provoked more antagonistic sentiment, the same kind of vilification of protestors as criminals and thugs is happening again this time. Tantawy’s speech on Tuesday was out of tune with the pulse of Tahrir Square. Mirroring their approach from the 25th of January, when the Muslim Brotherhood leadership chose to play it safe with the authorities and not join the protestors, so too this time they chose to boycott the millioniyya of Tuesday and found themselves alienated and marginalized once more.

As with the first occupation of Tahrir Square eleven months earlier, this time too, youth coalitions tried to instate their own moral economy amongst the ranks of the protestors. This is an attempt to create unity and present a particular vision of the polity: no political party slogans, no religious rhetoric, remember, it is all about saving Egypt .However, the truth is that this is not a unified front against a common enemy like the days of Mubarak. This is a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army on one side, against other political forces. This time, the protestors are challenged not only with removing a dictatorial and incompetent military regime, but with changing the conditions of choice under which voters will be going to the elections – and the latter is no easy task.

But let us not be deceived that civilian rule is a necessary but insufficient condition for the instatement of a democratic system. If the elections go ahead next week as scheduled, the only winners to emerge out of this current political struggle are the Islamists: the Brothers and the Salafis. Let us not forget that when the protests initially began last Friday, they were led by the Brotherhood and the Salafis to object to the clause affirming the civility of the state in the proposed supra-constitutional principles known as the “Selmi document”. The Brotherhood went home that night, the Salafis stayed and the security massacres started. Then when the youth revolutionary forces took to the Square, joined by others, the demands changed – and a demand for civilian rule became the catch cry. No doubt the military had used the civil/religious card as a divide and rule strategy to prolong its rule and it is time they read the writings on the wall: their time had expired.

If the elections take place next week all eyes will be on the ballot boxes, the widely celebrated proxy for liberal democratic rule and no doubt the Islamists are well positioned to bring in the votes. So what if the Islamists gain the majority, if this the will of the people, you might say. Give them a chance, they can’t be worse than the military, some say. Besides, if people don’t like them, they can vote them out in five years time. Such thinking places too much weight on liberal procedural mechanisms’ capability for instituting systems that are democratic, let alone inclusive. A snippet from Khaled Montasser’s recent column gives us an idea of what is happening in the rest of Egypt while the protestors fight it out in Tahrir Square:

A domestic worker from the poor urban settlement of Al Zawya Al Hamra was approached by two bearded men who gave her a bag with “the Freedom and Justice party” sticker on it (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party). The bag contained meat, oil and sugar, and a pen and pencil and ruler for the children. The woman was elated but then they asked her for her ID and told her that they know she won’t go to the elections and they are prepared to save her because arrest awaits those who do not go to vote. They told her that as they are Godly people, they will safeguard her ID. This incident was repeated with many women in the area .

The answer to the question of what is the use of her ID for the Brothers if she can’t go to the ballot herself?, lies in the comments in response to Montasser’s article: Easy, the Muslim Sisterhood is organized and mobilized, it is not hard for a woman wearing a niqab (face veil) to go in to vote repeatedly, using the collected IDs, in particular if the situation is one where identity checks on women are lax. Such are the speculations of the commentators.

Something else that is lax that is likely to undermine the power of the ballot box to tell us what the people think is the security situation. With thugs claiming the streets and sporadic violence erupting in many places, surely the conditions of exercising free choice through the ballot boxes are undermined? If the protestors win the struggle against the military through people power in Tahrir Square, the struggle against an Islamic state is a far tougher, more painful and drawn out one.

The sacrifice of the people who are losing their lives in Tahrir Square is a great one, and it is one that is inadvertently clearing the floor for the Islamists who have absolutely no intention of ruling by consensus, but by the power of the majority. Sadly, at this moment there is a blurring of lines, such that protesting in Tahrir Square and voting in parliamentary elections are seen as part and parcel of the same democratic package – and they are not. Unruly politics in Tahrir Square may afford a certain space for inclusive democracy, the orderly politics of elections under the present conditions will not. It will lead to a majoritarian democracy that is highly exclusionary. The act of claiming Tahrir Square is one thing, claiming a ballot box constituency is another.

The moral economy of one of Tahrir Square is not the moral economy that rules the streets in elections…the question now is whether it is possible to transform the ownership of the moral economy of Tahrir Square into a broad constituency among the people? Or is it that the power of unruly politics lies in its ability to create a rupture with the status quo but has more modest power in influencing the political outcome?

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and will be publishing IDS Bulletin 43.1 “The Pulse on Egypt’s Revolt” in January 2012


6 Responses to From unruly politics to ballot boxes: rethinking the terms of democratic engagement in Egypt

  1. Devangana says:

    Dear Mariz .. Thank you so much for this insightful article on the the dangers facing Egypt’s democratization process right now. It is a scathing call to what we are up against! The revolution is clearly going to be a long and difficult process!

    However, I was wondering if what is happening in Tahrir Square right now can be read beyond its immediate influence on the upcoming formal electoral process? Can the unruly politics that is articulating in Tahrir and on the streets of Cairo be seen as an embodiment of an emerging form of ‘doing’ politics that is a challenge itself to the model of representative democracy? Is it calling on us to move beyond that limited frame into the envisioning of a new imagination, a new form of organization, a new mode and vision of what ‘democracy’ looks like? For almost a whole year now, the movement has successfully managed to and insisted on articulating a voice that is not mediated through a ‘representative’ or ‘leader. This has generated an almost imperceptible process where the powers that be are faced with an unfathomable situation where any negotiation is one that has to speak directly to the million protesters at Tahrir (who are of course composed of their own heterogeneous mix of diverse ideologies and identities). This is definitely a very different and new from in comparison to how we have historically known radical politics playing out. Is what is happening at Tahrir asking us to throw away our frames of representative democracy to engage with a process and politics radically and unruly-ly different from what we have ever known?

  2. […] point appears to be well supported by the resurgence of protest in Egypt these last few days, as Mariz Tadros argues at the IDS blog, in which the relationship between street mobilizations and elections is […]

  3. […] into the hopes, fears and challenges experienced by those fighting for change. Her blog post “From unruly politics to ballot boxes: rethinking the terms of democratic engagement in Egypt” was a particularly thought-provoking […]

  4. […] with people in the Occupy movement. Mariz Tadros continues to be closely engaged with the emerging situation in Egypt and other parts of North […]

  5. […] From unruly politics to ballot boxes: rethinking the terms of democratic engagement in Egypt […]

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