Over the past three weeks, Egypt has witnessed several electoral experiments that deserve deep reflection and analysis.
The first and broadest in scale is the student union elections, where independent students and members of partisan coalitions made decisive gains over Muslim Brotherhood students. The second is the vote on party bylaws at the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and the Strong Egypt Party, in which wide and new deliberations were undertaken in favor of the party rank and file at the expense of long-standing figures.
The last is board and president elections at the Journalists and Pharmacists’ syndicates whose results have shown there is ample opportunity to build alliances between pro-revolutionary forces from across the spectrum.
These three examples seem to be launching new modes of democratization battles in the name of the revolution to establish pluralism and internal governance, and to establish more effective transparency and accountability dynamics. The successes of the pro-revolutionary forces on all these fronts overrides an organizational reality that lasted for decades: the seemingly never-ending confrontation between elements of the now-disbanded National Democratic Party and the Islamist current in an attempt to have syndicates, parties and student unions join either pole in a process of infeudation.
The aforementioned successes gain their importance from the closure, if not complete paralysis, of the political sphere, which is otherwise the normal arena for conflicts between opposing political powers. They boast a positive pattern of practice in the eyes of the public — a pattern alternative to the intransigence, polarization and exclusion that has characterized the performance of most ruling and opposition political powers since January.
The results of these elections have shown those elements that pledged to break with the authoritarian past as the cornerstone of their campaigns have won. They contributed something positive that merited praise within a revolutionary context that has entirely lost its sense of direction.
Meanwhile, these new developments are far from being entirely new initiatives. They have roots in the pre-revolution politics.
Since the early 1990s, and due to the closure of the political field, withdrawal into the confines of narrower structural frameworks and building of isolated islands to exercise compensatory democracy was the overarching logic of several activists’ practices.
This was evident, for example, in the establishment of freedom committees at various professional syndicates, where leftist activists tried to institute rights-driven platforms within their respective professional organizations. This was even clearer in the formation of hundreds of NGOs, particularly human rights organizations, to escape the limits of partisan activity, which remained confined to the binary of power inheritance and fear mongering about the rise of Islamists.
This was also clear in the sectoral initiatives led by farmers, workers and provincial residents against the arsenal of neo-liberal legislations promulgated under Hosni Mubarak, threatening their capacities to cope with new market economy prerogatives.
In all these former examples, specific groups tried to create an alternative margin for oppositional political action, far from partisan forums. They succeeded in crystalizing their demands, but failed to mobilize wider constituencies in their confrontation with the Mubarak regime.
Now, the situation is supposed to be structurally different. We are living in the aftermath of a revolution that shook the structure of the authoritarian order.
However, and despite the hope the recent electoral victories bring for the possibility of formulating new bases for political participation, these post-revolution “successes” face serious challenges.
The first challenge lies in the fact that the central goal in these models is torn between breaking with the long authoritarian legacy on the one hand and rallying people around the urgent need of trimming the nails of the fledgling Brotherhood regime on the other.
The two goals can overlap but don’t serve the same purpose. The first goal seeks to set new organizational and intellectual structures in the name of the democratization path, while the second goal seeks to rally people in the name of political antagonism in a polarized context.
The second challenge lies in the sectorialism of these practices and the fact that the involved actors have not yet endeavored to claim a model-building strategy that could inspire larger structures and create the necessary common ground, enabling both the generalization and the collaboration between these different democratizing forces and sites.
The third challenge lies in the eventual “organizational autism” of such pioneer experiences.
For, in most cases, actors in these alternative democratic spaces tend to become overprotective of their emerging models and newly carved spaces. They dismiss the broader political realm and perceive it as potentially threatening the good development of their compensatory democratic model-building initiatives.
Rethinking these challenges and weaving these success stories into the visible part of the forest could definitely guide and inspire other sites of political confrontation, such as trade unions, corrupt public institutions and nascent partisan coalitions. This is the only way to stop missing the forest for the trees.
Otherwise, the eternal reproduction of alternative and compensatory democratic micro spaces will never fulfill its promise: ending the current state of stagnation, authoritarianism and co-optation of all our political and social institutions.
Dina el-Khawaga is a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science, and programs director at the Arab Reform Initiative in Paris.
This article was translated by Dina Zafer.