By Mark Bebawi
It’s rare for us to have guest articles, but Pacifica Radio host of The Monitor, Mark Bebawi, has insight into an issue where to be dumb is to be deadly. Mark, born and raised in Cairo, wrote his master’s dissertation at Oxford on the Egyptian Brotherhood. George Bush sent me his copy. (Or was that The Pet Goat?)
So, to cut through the crapola about doings in Cairo, I’ve asked Bebawi to write a short “Egypt for Idiots” about the election today, a special for our readers.
For all the talk of revolution and the Arab Spring, what happened last year in Egypt was not regime change. It was more of a clothing change – a suit was removed and a military uniform was donned in a country that went from a nominally civilian dictatorship to a military council. But fundamentally the same people are in charge now as were during the Mubarak presidency.
In spite of this, the presidential election in Egypt is historic. It is the first time the outcome is not predetermined. There are 13 candidates on the ballot and none of them will get a Mubarak-like 90 plus % of the vote. So who will people be voting for and what will a new president be able to do? And, perhaps more importantly, what will this mean for Egyptians and the rest of the region? The answers to these vital questions are not yet known and it is very possible there will be run-off round next month. Having said that, there are some things we can predict with some certainty.
First and foremost among these: It is not who does the voting but who does the counting that is most important. The last five decades have entrenched a regime that has gotten very good at manipulating elections. At both the presidential and parliamentary levels there has been clear evidence of election fraud. Videos that would be comedic gold, were it not for the underlying fraud, have surfaced showing election officials working their way through, and casting, dozens of votes each. We have no way of knowing if this election will be free and fair but recent history should at least throw up a couple of caution flags.
If the votes are fairly counted it is likely that Islamist candidates will get the majority of the votes. Yet even this is not what it may seem to outside observers. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour Party (a backward looking Salafi cadre looking to re-establish the mythical golden age of Islam in Egypt) appear to have cleanly won two thirds of the seats in recent parliamentary elections. The reality behind this victory is more complicated than Egypt suddenly turning into a fundamentalist Muslim country. The Brotherhood has had decades to prepare for elections. It has a powerful and organized electoral infrastructure and has been involved in politics for over two generations. So, while the uprising and the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were not started, coordinated or maintained by Islamists it was the Islamist who were predictably positioned to take advantage of any elections. Their weakness in the presidential round is that their votes will be split because of the multitude of candidates running on their Islamic credentials.
Secondly, Egypt does not have a functioning constitution at present. The committee that was drafting one was disbanded by the courts and suffered from a deep conflict of interest. It was made up of members of parliament and was supposed to draft a constitution that, among other things, was going to establish the separation of powers between parliament, president and judiciary. So we have a presidential election in which all candidates, and any eventual winner, will not know on their first day in office what exactly their office will be able to do. This plays into the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) because it can still exert its influence through the courts to help craft a constitution that is in keeping with its aims of maintaining control of the country. If the new president is allied with the SCAF it is likely the constitution will grant the president wide-ranging powers and Egypt will see more years of little real change. If the new president is inimical to the SCAF it is likely we will see a new push for a constitution that restricts the president’s powers and enough holes that the SCAF can fill through constitutional vagueness and the continued exercise of undue military control over civilian life.
Thirdly, what of the regional and international dimensions to this election? Egypt’s position as a key regional ally of both Israel and the US will continue to have a long term impact on Egyptian politics. Israel fears a change to a more Islamist Egypt as much as the US does. Both countries will want to maintain a close relationship with Egypt and ensure that policies and regional stances do not change. These external pressures, coupled with a SCAF that stands to lose a lot of power if a new constitution and president force them back into their barracks and out of political life, will mean that the Tahrir Square revolutionaries who dreamed of a democratic change in Egypt will have to wait a little while longer to see their dream realized.
There is reason to be positive in spite of all this. A new generation of politically active youth has grown up in Egypt. They are more aware of the world, more connected to each other, and no longer frightened of their rulers. They have seen that, through sheer weight of numbers, they can force change in their country and stand up to dictatorship. They are equally aware of the agendas of the Islamists and the desire for status quo in the corridors of power in other countries. However, because of decades of externally funded and supported dictatorship they find themselves in a position of being a disorganized majority that will not win in the short term. The good news is that they are in it for the long term.
If we can learn one thing from what is going on in Egypt it is that supporting dictatorship is a dangerous game. It has helped fuel the rise of Islamist parties and leaves us facing an uncertain future that could lead to one of three outcomes: future wars between an Islamist Egypt and Israel; more of the old tyranny and oppression; or a long and troubled road to peace and stability. The last of these is only possible if enough people are aware and informed.
Mark Bebawi grew up in Cairo, Egypt. He hosts a weekly current affairs hour-long radio show on KPFT, Pacifica Radio, Houston, holds a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from Oxford University and wrote his thesis on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mark and The Monitor are in our group of “Media Resources” in our upcoming book/voter-guide/comic book: Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: Election Games 2012.
If you believe your radio program, website, newsletter or organization should be listed in our section on Experts, Action Groups and Media Resources, contact me, Greg Palast, at BallotBandits-[at]-gmail.com.
Join with Bebawi, Brad Friedman, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Election Defense Alliance plus many more and protect the vote. Believe it or not, it’s not only Egyptians that have to worry about the vote count.