As expected the results of Egypt’s first genuine presidential election has triggered an avalanche of comments. Having set the stage for a duel between the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and his rival who enjoys the implicit support of the military, the first round of the election is seen by some as a catastrophe and by others as a relief.
However, derogatory or approbatory adjectives aside, the results could best be described with another word: expected.
The results were expected because they reflect the reality of Egyptian political life at present. Since Egypt gained its independence in the 1920s its politics has been dominated by two elements. The first has been the army, around which the modern Egyptian state was structured even under the monarchy, and the Muslim Brotherhood that ideologised the hopes and fears of segments of the urban middle and lower middle classes.
But, what about the Tahrir Square protestors, many ask?
The question is wrongly formulated. So far, there has been no revolution in Egypt. As noted in this column many months ago, Egyptians are experiencing change within the regime rather than regime change. In any case, the principal slogan of the Tahrir crowd was “Go!” addressed to President Hosni Mubarak. Tahrir did not propose a program for revolutionary changes in the nation’s social, economic and political structures.
Because the word “revolution” still evokes romantic images, some Egyptians like to speak of “our revolution”. Nevertheless, a revolution is designated as such only after it has happened not before or while it is happening.
Egypt is lucky to have escaped revolution, at least so far.
Revolution, its romantic aura notwithstanding, is not a garden party. It is about mass killings and destruction. They always start as uprisings against dictatorship but end up creating a new despotism that is far worse. The French revolution produced Robespierre and his Terror. The Russian Revolution reached its peak with Stalin, and the Chinese one with Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. The Khomeinist revolution in Iran produced Walayat al-Faqih or the dictatorship of a mullah.
Even the mild revolutions of 1848 in Europe produced dictators, including Louis Bonaparte and Bismarck.
In every case, with revolution, people end up less free than before. Overcoming the negative effects of a revolution could take decades, if not centuries.
There is no doubt that some Egyptians find it hard to vote for either Muhammad Mursi or Ahmad Shafiq. Mursi is rejected as a zealot plotting despotism in the name of Shariah. Shafiq, on the other hand, is attacked as the jackboot designated by the military to save the old order.
Though understandable, that attitude is both wrong and unfair.
An election is about a choice at a given time and in a given space. Thus candidates should be judged for what they offer at that precise moment rather than what they might have been or might do in hypothetical circumstances. Today, Mursi is a candidate for the presidency of Egypt and, if elected, would no longer represent the Muslim Brotherhood.
As for Shafiq, it is futile to continue branding him as a general. To start with, he is a retired general. And, having had a military career is no reason to disqualify a man for political office.
At least a third of American presidents so far have been retired military officers.
As candidates for the presidency no one attacked Eisenhower in the U.S. or De Gaulle in France because they had once been generals. Nor was Attlee branded “Major” when he was a candidate for Prime Minister in Great Britain.
A candidate’s past is certainly relevant to the judgment that voters make. But to transform that past into a derogatory cliché is hardly acceptable. Opponents of Ronald Reagan jeered at him as “the cowboy” because he had once played in a Western film. They ignored the fact that his political career was twice as long as his stint as Hollywood actor.
Even worse is turning one’s concerns into a witch-hunt of intentions for a candidate. The candidacy of both Mursi and Shafiq raises serious concerns and it is understandable that many Egyptians should think the worst of them. However, if such concerns lead to boycotting the election and rejecting the electoral process, the remedy would be worse than the real or imagined illness.
What is important is that this election, being the first of its kind for Egypt, not be the last. The real issue is to develop a national consensus axed on two crucial principles. The first of these is that governments should be made and un-made through elections. The second is it that all Egyptians be allowed to contest elections; in other words no party or group should be banned on ideological grounds.
While it is important to remain vigilant, the prospect for imposing a new dictatorship on Egypt in the name of religion or “law and order” should not be exaggerated. Mursi and Shafiq lack the massive popular support needed for derailing Egypt’s slow march to democracy. In the first round, the two men won the support of around one-fifth of the total electorate.
These days, being pessimistic about Egypt’s prospects is fashionable. The truth, however, is that Egypt is on the right track with evolutionary change that avoids the death and desolation of revolutions while preventing the emergence of a new dictatorship.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Asharq Al Awsat on June. 1st, 2012