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Who will win in September?

If the secularist camp does not organise and mobilise, the upcoming free and fair elections may be Egypt's first and last

Abdel Moneim Said , Saturday 28 May 2011
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The revolution will continue to heave and surge and rage though various forms of clashes and demonstrations against conditions of the past and of the present. It will also continue to swing between the reaffirmation of national unity and the solidarity of "the crescent and the cross" and the propensity towards sectarian strife and its attendant confrontations, clashes, accusations and conflicting theories as to whether this phenomenon stems from a long festering infection in Egyptian political culture or to the "remnants" of the National Democratic Party and state security apparatus which, although dissolved and disbanded, are nevertheless suspected of engineering appalling incidents of violence and destruction.

Such a state of turmoil is typical of a revolution that is still in a state of revolution. However it will diminish and eventually cease as institutions of government coalesce and reassert the legitimacy of the state, thereby delegitimising revolution. Recall how the revolution cooled following the referendum over the constitutional amendments. Nevertheless, we also must note that as the spirit of revolution subsided, the spirit of sectarian strife and other doctrinal discords began to flare. Simultaneously, the leadership that had played the key role in igniting the revolution and bringing down the old regime seems to have faded from the scene or lost some of its glimmer.

Curiously, while it was primarily young men and women who carried the revolution through its initial thrust and its first major victory, they have since been succeeded by much older people, some well into their 80s. Mohamed El-Baradei may merit a place among the ranks of the revolutionary youth, having been one of the first to call for the downfall of the old regime and to advocate less conventional means of opposition. Yet it is odd that the field is now dominated people and groups that, in the past, had reached accommodations with the old regime, even if they had been in the opposition. In fact, it is precisely these circles that have provided most of the presidential candidates who are currently flitting from one press interview to the next.

All this will enter another phase with the legislative elections in September, at which time we will be able to speak of actual popular representation. Until then, every candidate, party and group will claim that they speak for "the people", "the masses," and "the nation", and they will continue to do so in increasingly strident tones all the way to the polls, which will ultimately sort day from night.

One naturally wonders who will come out ahead in the forthcoming electoral battle, which will probably be one of the most crucial moments in Egyptian history. Certainly, the general lay of the field is already clear. It is characterised by two main orientations, one religious, the other secularist. The Muslim Brotherhood, represented by its Freedom and Justice Party, leads the former camp, which also consists of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the Egyptian Jihad and the various shades of Salafis. They are likely to win the sympathy of quite a few Sufi orders as well as a number of the old NDP apparatchiks who often rallied against the Ahmed Nazif government in the pre-November 2010 parliament. The other camp, which is championed by a broad front of the movements that spearheaded the revolution and similar coalitions, is beginning to coalesce in political party form, although there is little to suggest that their parties will be familiar enough to the public or sufficiently prepared by election time. Nevertheless, they will be joined by Egyptian Christians, most of the liberal and leftist parties, such as the Wafd, the Nasserist Party and the Tagammu, as well as by a large collection of NGOs and other representatives of civil society.

To some extent, these general orientations shaped the stances, whether for or against, in the referendum on the constitutional amendments, which drew the first clear lines in the post-25 January political map. In that referendum, the first camp obtained 77.2 per cent of the vote versus 22.8 per cent for the second. However, it is important to bear in mind that, in this referendum, a "critical mass" of voters sided with the first camp because they felt that the amendments bill offered the clearest path to the transition from revolutionary legitimacy to the legitimacy of the established state, which is to say to the return to normalcy that Egyptians desperately yearned for at the time. But this sentiment will no longer be a major factor now that this wish has come true and elections are at hand in September. Therefore, it remains open which way this key group of voters will swing in those elections, the results of which will be crucial to the subsequent selection of the constitutional committee and then to the choice of president.

Several factors will be instrumental in determining the impact of the "critical mass" of Egyptian voters. Foremost among them will be their turnout at the polls. Only 41 per cent of the 45 million eligible voters took part in the referendum. This relatively low figure could be increased by increasing the number of polling stations, of which there are only 44,000 at present, a factor that has long deterred all but the most committed from braving long voting queues. Secondly, although judicial supervision will now guarantee the integrity of the polls and ensure that people's votes really do count, the proportional electoral list system will yield very different kinds of results than those produced by the individual candidate system. A third critical factor will be campaign financing. Election campaigns and buying television air-time in particular have become extraordinarily expensive. However, there is a huge discrepancy in the financial capacities of the two camps. The secular camp can not even dream of matching the financial resources of the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the NDP. Finally, much will depend on the ability of the rivals to win public support by means of clear and succinct electoral platforms that truly address people's hopes and aspirations.

On the basis of the foregoing criteria and circumstances as they currently stand, the "critical mass" is likely to swing towards the religious camp, with its better organisational, mobilisational and financial capacities. In addition, even if that camp truly relinquished the slogan, "Islam is the solution," it still possesses a remarkable talent for swaying public opinion through emotive and misleading oversimplifications and attacks on the opposing viewpoint. For example, during the referendum on the constitutional amendments, it centred its propaganda around Article 2, claiming that a "No" vote would negate the Islamic character of the state. Although the proposed constitutional amendments in the referendum came nowhere near this article, the tactic worked marvellously, and helped yield this camp's desired result.

The secularists, therefore, have their work cut out for them. They will need to expand their base of support considerably and to try to use the proportional list system to their best advantage. They will also have to enlist the moral and financial support of the business community. Finally, they must couch their liberal secularist message in a simpler and graspable language that will capture the public's attention. Their ability to rise to this challenge will determine the future of Egypt, the Egyptian constitution and the nature of its government. The more effective they are the lower is the probability that the country's first free and fair parliamentary elections will be its last.

A version of this article also appears in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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