Why I voted for Mursi

Jun 05

With the second-round of the historical Egyptian presidential election fast approaching, Egyptian activists are deeply divided, with some arguing in favor of one or another of the two candidates, on the grounds of choosing the lesser of two evils with disagreements over which candidate is the “lesser” of the evils, another group advocating a boycott of the final round, and a third advocating voters indicate their support for a “revolutionary” candidate by intentionally invalidating their ballots.  I, for one, have no doubt that the best outcome for the run-off, the one that maximizes the likelihood that the revolution will achieve its goals, is that Muhammad Mursi, the presidential candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (“FJP”), defeats Ahmad Shafiq, an old regime stalwart and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister before being forced to resign by revolutionary forces. 

I say this for two reasons, one positive and one negative.  The positive reason is that the Muslim Brotherhood, by virtue of its deep and broad roots in Egyptian civil society, is relatively well-positioned, from an institutional perspective, to articulate policies that are beneficial to a broader segment of the Egyptian populace than any other organized group.  This is without doubt the case when one compares the social base of the Muslim Brotherhood to that of the ancient regime, now contemptuously referred to by the revolutionaries as “al-fulūl” (the remnants).  It is also true, however, when one compares the social base of the Muslim Brotherhood to other groups who participated in the Jan. 25th Revolution.  Unlike the revolutionary candidates, Hamdin Sabbahi and Abu al-Futuh ʿAbd al-Munʿim, whose votes were skewed to Egyptian urban centers, particularly Cairo and Alexandria, and unlike Ahmad Shafiq, whose support was disproportionately concentrated in the Delta, Muhammad Mursi’s support was broadly dispersed throughout the country.

The breadth of his support is consistent with the intuition that a Mursi government, especially with a parliament dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party, is better positioned at this point to formulate policies that are consistent with the interests of the broad Egyptian public than any other significant contender.  In fact, it is hard to see any political group in Egypt that has enough domestic legitimacy and strength to pass comprehensive economic and political reforms other than the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP.  This is a powerful reason to support Mursi, whatever concerns one might have regarding its stance on individual freedoms.  Indeed, I would go further than that, and say that even if one thinks that the scope of individual freedoms in Egypt will be restricted as a result of a Mursi victory – a conclusion that is far from certain – Egyptian revolutionaries should still support Mursi over Shafiq, a point which I will elaborate in further detail below.  On the other hand, if one is skeptical that the FJP represents a real threat to Egyptians’ civil liberties in the short-term, then the decision to support Mursi is even easier.  In short, there are good positive reasons to vote for Mursi and the FJP, and the countervailing considerations, though real, are not sufficiently weighty to overcome them in the present political context.

But that is not the only reason to support Mursi over Shafiq.  If this runoff were between Mursi and anyone else, one could credibly argue that the cause of Egyptian democracy would be furthered if the FJP did not also control the presidency.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  The choice is between Mursi and the most prominent old regime holdover, indeed, Mubarak’s last appointed prime minister.  Shafiq has made no secret of his distaste for the Jan. 25th Revolution, his continued admiration for his old boss, and has even expressed a willingness to appoint Mubarak’s torturer-in-chief, Omar Suleiman, to a position of authority in his administration.  Shafiq has also returned to prominence by convincing a certain sector of Egyptians who pine for the “stability” of the Mubarak regime that he is the person ruthless enough to return “order” to Egypt’s streets and its people to their natural state of docile “obedience.”  While Mursi and the Freedom and Justice Party may not be sympathetic to a full-menu of liberal personal rights, they have given no indications that they aim to restore the security state in all its splendor to the Egyptian people.  Accordingly, it is my considered opinion that Shafiq and his allies represent an overt threat to even the most minimalist conception of democracy that Egypt requires if it is to attain a sustainable path of social, economic, political and cultural development.  Finally, Shafiq and his allies among the fulūl represent a desire to return to the economic status quo ante of crony capitalism in which the state enriches favored businessmen in return for bribes and promises of political loyalty.  In turn, loyal businessmen are awarded lucrative monopolies that impoverish the Egyptian public at worst, and are incapable of producing sufficient economic growth to the meet the growing needs of the Egyptian labor force at best.  Restoration of the ancient regime, as would inevitably occur with a Shafiq victory, would be a political, economic and human rights disaster.  The election of Mursi, on the other hand, with its broadly middle-class constituency, would represent an important move toward a more inclusive and representative Egyptian state, even if it will, in the short term, lead to ambiguous results on the human rights front.

There is only one credible reason that would justify, from a revolutionary perspective, either boycotting the election or voting for Shafiq: the fear that an Egyptian government in which the Freedom and Justice Party controls both the Presidency and the Parliament would be able to eliminate its political rivals.  Thus far, however, I have not heard a plausible scenario under which the FJP would be able to eliminate its political rivals from the public square and impose one-state rule in Egypt.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of the results of the first round was that it confirmed that Egypt can only be governed through some kind of coalition between the Islamic opposition and the non-Islamic opposition.  While I think, given the FJP’s demonstrated electoral strengths, that it is reasonable that it be given an opportunity to lead the transition at this point in Egyptian history, it is crucial to bear in mind that FJP’s electoral strengths did not prove to be so overwhelming that it could reasonably believe that it can dispense with the support of the non-Islamic opposition.  The greater risk, instead, is that if the non-Islamic opposition continues to treat the FJP as though it were part of the ancient regime that the FJP may choose to enter into a coalition with the fulul, something Ellis Goldberg obliquely alluded to in a very insightful post on the state of the Egyptian body politic in the wake of the first-round of the presidential elections.

Finally, a reader might reasonably question why I am so sanguine about the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit in the garb of the FJP, controlling the formal institutions of the Egyptian state.  There are several reasons I do not fear the electoral success of the FJP.  The first of these is that the FJP derives its power from electoral success, not its ability to marshal support from armed militias in the street which will subvert the possibility of future electoral competition.  Second, I believe that Egypt continues to be in a transitional phase in which all political efforts must be directed toward securing the bases for a democratic state whose principal features have yet to be fully realized, and it will continue to be in this transition period for a significant period of time.  During this period, it is crucial that Egyptians of various political trends learn to focus on cooperating toward solving the pressing structural problems that we have inherited from the ancient regime.  A genuinely liberal constitution can only emerge after a certain amount of political trust has developed among the various different parties and trends that comprise the Egyptian body politic, and the only way to begin accumulating this civic capital is to credit the opposition with some level of good faith and trustworthiness, using only democratic means to criticize them and to unseat them.

Third, some prominent Egyptian revolutionaries believe that the FJP’s electoral success has, in a strange twist of irony, taken a revolution that was intended to improve Egyptians’ rights and given power to a group that will diminish the rights of Egyptian women and Copts.  This fear is, I believe, exaggerated, but not necessarily for the reasons commonly thought.  It may very well be the case that the FJP wishes to impose, eventually, a version of Islamic law on Egyptian society that would reduce women to second-class citizens, and exclude Copts from the category of citizenship altogether.  The most important risk to rights in Egypt, in my opinion, however, is not the overt or the covert agenda of the FJP, but rather the general ineffectiveness of the Egyptian state.  Despite the fact that the Mubarak regime was a police state, its police was in the service of Mubarak and his henchmen, not the people.  No one, whether Muslim or Copt, male or female, could effectively rely on the legal system to vindicate his or her formal rights as a citizen, however inadequate they may have been.  In the ancient regime, one’s “rights” depended more on one’s social position than on the legal merits of one’s claims.  In short, I believe the revolution was able to garner broad support among all sectors of Egyptian society precisely because it was a demand that the people wanted a state in which their rights were worth something.  It was a revolution to have the right to have meaningful rights.  There was no agreement, however, on what those rights, as a substantive matter, are.  Hence, Egyptian society remains deeply divided on constitutional questions, and the ancient regime wishes to exploit these division to return to power.  Accordingly, the most prudent course at this stage is to defer the question of controversial substantive rights, and focus on building an effective state that can enforce whatever menu of rights its citizens come to enjoy.  After that is accomplished, rights can be expanded, but without a functioning state, the most liberal constitutional rights will not prove to be beneficial to Egyptians.  By focusing on what needs to be done from a practical perspective to build an effective state that is responsive to its citizens aspirations, all elements of the revolutionary coalition will be able to contribute and there is a greater likelihood to generate the kind of broad coalition necessary to see the revolution through to a final victory over the ancient regime.  Instead of worrying then over which revolutionary party will win the first round of elections, and which party is sufficiently “revolutionary,” the cause of the Jan. 25th Revolution would be better served if the revolutionaries put forward a concrete institutional reform program that could serve as a basis for a unified platform for reform.  This would not only help to consolidate the revolutionary forces and reduce the risk of a return to the ancient regime, it would also provide an objective measure against which to measure the performance of whatever government comes into place.

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