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Democracy in Egypt is an imperfect, but vital, evolution

Boycotting Egypt's presidential election, as many are now proposing, is no way to make democracy work.

The culmination of the race for the presidency should be a proud moment for Egypt. Yet, paradoxically, the country's nascent democratic process has delivered an apparently anti-democratic outcome.

Although Egyptians are getting the unprecedented opportunity to pick their next leader (and just barely; the Supreme Constitutional Court nearly moved to disqualify one of the two candidates yesterday, and did invalidate one third of the members of parliament) voters have the unenviable dilemma of choosing between an antirevolutionary, neoliberal military man, Ahmed Shafiq, and a counterrevolutionary, neoliberal Islamist, Mohammed Morsi.

This has left revolutionaries and their supporters in a double bind: participation means effectively voting against the revolution, but boycotting the ballot could undermine the democratic process.

Like Odysseus, Egypt's revolutionaries have to navigate, without shipwrecking their project, between the multi-headed Scylla of the old regime's remnants on one side, and the mysterious, ominous, whirlpool-inducing Charybdis of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

One way of avoiding both perils is to boycott the run-off elections, as many activists and some defeated candidates have been urging, in order to show that neither Mr Morsi nor Mr Shafiq enjoys a real mandate. "It does not make sense to choose between two wrongs," said one protester in Tahrir Square.

People certainly have the right to abstain, but doing so does involve certain risks. For one, it lets opponents of the revolution continue their long smear campaign by saying a boycott is undemocratic and motivated by spite, not principle.

Because of the abuses committed during the transition, the uncertainty about presidential powers and the murky role the military surely will retain, many revolutionaries have become so disillusioned that they plan to shun the political process and continue the struggle on the streets.

But this would be a grave error. While there will be a need for the protest-orientated "democracy of Tahrir" for many years to come, the revolution needs to continue by all means possible - and that includes becoming part of the political process, imperfect though it is.

True, the generals loaded the dice, but that was not the only reason for the revolutionaries' poor showing in the parliamentary and presidential races. The turnout of just 47 per cent for the unique spectacle of 13 men vying for Egypt's top job was effectively a vote of little-to-no confidence in all the candidates.

That the new electoral political class was unable to inspire is partly a result of the decades of repressive rule. But it is also due to the disarray and fragmentation of the revolutionary movement. For example, the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, announced it was backing the Islamist candidate Mr Morsi, after he signed a "national consensus document" and promised to appoint a vice-president not connected to the Brotherhood. But the very next day, the youth movement called for a boycott of the election.

Had the young revolutionaries changed their mind so quickly or was this some mistake? Neither, as it turns out. The first announcement was made by the "Ahmed Maher Front" led by one of the group's co-founders; the second came from a splinter group known as the "Democratic Front".

Instead of this infighting and intrigue, Egypt's progressive, secular forces need to find a way to consolidate and forge a functioning opposition to the well-organised, disciplined Islamists. By doing that, the revolution's supporters will stand a better chance at the next elections.

Remember that the revolution is not just political but also social, cultural and economic. This is recognised in the revolutionary slogan "bread, freedom and social justice", but has not been acted upon except sporadically at the local level, mainly by workers and trade unions.

If ordinary Egyptians are to be won over to the cause, they need to see that there is something in it for them - social and economic justice.

The Muslim Brotherhood's success is rooted in more than 80 years of grassroots social and cultural activism and charitable work. Secularists can learn, and are learning, a lot from the Brotherhood about instigating change from the bottom, up. Egypt does not just need revolution, it also needs gradual evolution.


Khaled Diab is a Belgian-Egyptian freelance journalist based in Jerusalem

Updated: June 15, 2012 04:00 AM