Lessons of Egypt's presidential race

Samer Soliman , Friday 8 Jun 2012

For many the elections run-off choice between the military and the Brotherhood is unbearable and they prefer to boycott. Revolutionary forces should respond by focusing now on how to build a third way

There are three lessons to learn from the results of the first round of Egypt's presidential race.

One: Do not trust opinion polls
None of the opinion polls ahead of the presidential elections were able to gauge voting patterns, but they no doubt influenced them. A few days before elections day, a poll by one of the research centres placed Ahmed Shafiq as the leader of the race ahead of Amr Moussa who came in second place. Should we assume that this poll was the most accurate as opposed to others that put Moussa in the number one slot? Not necessarily, because the polls that placed Shafiq in the lead could have contributed to a large number of Moussa voters switching to Shafiq since he was more likely to win. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is best exemplified on the stock exchange; if you succeed in spreading a rumour on the stock exchange that stock prices will drop, it is most likely that the majority will scramble to sell their stocks which will in fact result in their collapse.
It is a fact that opinion polls ahead of elections in any country are a tool of formulating such opinion and not only to gauge it. However, the influence of these surveys and personal polling (which we all do in our immediate circle) was dominant in the case of Egypt. Why? Because voters were highly undecided; they were choosing their president for the first time in their lives out of a band of candidates whom they were not familiar with very well, and most probably were not entirely convinced with any of them. At the same time, most voters were far more preoccupied with making a certain candidate lose than focusing on helping another win.
These factors left the door wide open for manipulation of voters by convincing them, for example, that Shafiq rather than Amr Moussa is the only one capable of taking out the candidate of political Islam, or that Abul-Fotouh is the sole candidate who can defeat the Muslim Brotherhood nominee. The majority of Egyptian voters were inclined to vote for someone who could defeat the candidate they hate, rather than choosing the candidate that they prefer. This was brilliantly summarised by a comedian, who said: “Most Egyptians like a certain candidate, but they vote for someone else in order to prevent a third candidate from winning.”
This is the danger of pushing people to do what is known as strategic voting; namely, you should make your vote count and you should use it to benefit a candidate who has a good chance of winning. Some take it even further and accuse others of being condescending towards the people because they reject standard voting and insist on elitist voting. What this logic fails to understand is that strategic voting is a call for elitist voting. Who else knows strategic outlooks other than the elite? Who possesses the tools to measure public opinion other than the elite?
The main lesson of these elections is the following: do not vote for anyone except someone your mind accepts; if your head is confused, then rely on your intuition and heart. The heart is sometimes quicker to sense the truth than the head. Vote for your candidate irrespective of what opinion polls say; if your candidate loses, then you have won by asserting the point that there is a need in Egypt for this type of candidate and it will produce more of them in the future. And perhaps something surprising will happen, and your candidate wins despite his poor standing in opinion polls. Wasn’t Hamdeen Sabbahi too far behind for victory?

Two: Do not be shy about defending your legitimate “partisan” interests.
The lyrics of a famous song say: “We should not ask what Egypt has offered us; but what will we give Egypt.” This is a truth that is used to obtain a falsehood. Most – not all – of the rhetoric about national interests and the interests of the revolution is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. No one has a monopoly on national interests, and we differ about what these interests are. This variance is partly due to diverging opinions and methods, but it is mostly due to diverging interests or the priority of interests.
Everyone knows their best interests, but national interests are the collection of a variety of legitimate interests for various sectors and segments of the people. If each segment honestly expressed it legitimate rights and voted for these interests in parliamentary and presidential elections, it would make it easy to gather all these interests and find consensus among them. But if each person and group insisted on claiming that their ballot choice was based on the interests of the country only, then we will not move an inch forward because discourse would become pretentious and overstated.
In other words, if you are poor then it is your right to vote for whomever you believe will be able to lift you from poverty; if you are a moderate Muslim or Christian it is your right to vote for someone you believe will protect you against religious extremism. Personally, I differ with many moderate Muslims and Christians who voted for Shafiq under the pretext that he is capable of confronting the extremists. The military came to power in 1952 when the Islamist current was one of the main forces along with other movements. After 60 years under military rule, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to evolve from a strong force to the most influential force far ahead of its opponents.
I differ with you on what is the best way to defend your legitimate interests and yourself from the tyranny of extremist trends. I do not deny these interests; you have the right to vote for Shafiq based on your belief that he is the most capable of restoring security for you and yours. Restoring security is a legitimate interest, but I disagree with you that Shafiq is the most able to accomplish this. My disagreement with you must first and foremost be rooted in my respect of your legitimate interest in living in security.
This was largely a failure of the campaigns opposing Shafiq that focused on the fact that he is a “remnant” of the ousted regime – a fact he did not deny. To defeat Shafiq, the message should have been different to segments of Shafiq’s audience who did not belong to the webs of interest and corruption of the National Democratic Party. The message should have been: We respect your legitimate interests and we have a better approach for achieving them. Condescension towards these interests or accusing their advocates of selfishness and disloyalty is juvenile or disrespectful of or hostile towards the people’s legitimate interests.
Does this mean that interests are the only motivation for people? No. There is such a thing as sacrifice. Proof of this is the thousands of martyrs and injured during and after the revolution. Political calculations, however, must be based on the fact that sacrifice is the exception and not the rule, and should first and foremost be founded in the recognition of interests. In order to sacrifice my interests, I must first recognise these interests in order to sacrifice them, and anyone who asks me to make a sacrifice must first recognise that I am making a sacrifice and they too must also signal sacrifice.
Otherwise, they would be similar to the enemies of “partisan” protests. They own luxury cars and home, but complain when workers and employees fight to add a few extra pounds to their paltry wages. They ask the latter to sacrifice and be patient, while they themselves do not show any sign of willingness after the revolution to give a single piastre in real estate tax that would only affect the wealthy middle class. And thus, the real estate tax remains until today on the shelf at the Ministry of Finance.

Three: Don’t waste your time finding out who is worse and worst but focus on the better.
If your choice is based on your own interests or national interests that dictate that Morsi is better than Shafiq or vice versa, do not hesitate in voting for them. But if you are like me, and you honestly cannot tell who is worse than whom, then there is no need for Shafiq or Morsi’s supporters to convince you to vote for either. Don’t believe any experts who tell you this one is better than that, because these same experts differ on who would be the worst influence on democratic transition, economic growth and security.
Second, it is almost impossible to definitively say who poses a greater threat to the collective interests of Egyptians. The scenario of Morsi ruling is influenced by many unpredictable factors, and the same applies to Shafiq. Accordingly, boycotting the second round or voiding your ballot is a positive choice and appropriate for some of us, especially since the elections – despite the miserable result of the run-off – included a pleasant surprise in the first round, in that many Egyptians want neither Shafiq nor Morsi but want a third way which some candidates expressed, such as Sabbahi and Khaled Ali and to a lesser degree Abul-Fotouh.
These people deserve that we as political forces and revolutionary groups should organise ourselves and discuss with them how we will confront the dangers of President Morsi or President Shafiq, and how to create effective organisations capable of extracting Egypt from the dilemma of choosing between the military and Muslim Brotherhood duo that has hindered Egypt’s progress for long decades. This is much more beneficial than polemics with Morsi or Shafiq supporters about who is less harmful. This is also much better than exhausting yourself in a mental debate to choose between Morsi and Shafiq.
The glorious revolution succeeded when the people took action to forge a better future, not to escape a bleak future. Let’s start now on making the third option a success.

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