Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2011
Issue No. 1070
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Whether in Egypt or America, it takes organisation to win

Great ideas alone do not bring change on the ground. Rather, it is the patient work of community and party organisation that counts, writes James Zogby

In 1981, my brother, John Zogby, ran for mayor of Utica, New York. Like other factory towns across New England, the mid-Atlantic and mid-Western states, Utica was in decline. The factories that had employed tens of thousands had closed and gone south. With the loss of these jobs, the city was in the beginning of a steep decline.

In 1950, Utica had a population of 100,000. By 1980, it had dropped to 80,000 (today Utica hovers around 60,000). Loss of employment meant that neighbourhoods were in decline, families were breaking up under the pressures of unemployment, and urban blight had set in, with once family-friendly neighbourhoods now in decay.

Despite this troubling state of affairs, politics in the city had not changed. Machine politicians that had once fed off prosperity, now scrambled to feed off the spoils of a dying community.

John had a plan to revitalise this downsized city. He had written a creative study entitled "Utica 2000", projecting an economic plan that could lead Utica into the next century. His work captured the imagination of many intellectuals, civic organisations, and progressives across the city, spurring his bid to run for mayor. John's candidacy won the endorsement of Utica's television station and its newspaper. He had a cohort of professors at the city's college in his brain trust, but Utica's Democratic Party machine was threatened by this upstart campaign, and mobilised against this upstart movement. In that year's Democratic primary contest, John lost decisively.

I remember a conversation between John and former Senator James Abourezk, shortly after the election in which John explained to the senator how the machine had defeated him. He related how they had hired drivers to take people to the polls, provided them with marked sample ballots indicating their endorsed candidates and, when needed, how they had used "walking around money" to sway voters to their camp. Abourezk's take on the election was quite direct. "So what you're telling me," he said, "was that you were out-organised". It was not what we wanted to hear, but it was the truth, plain and simple. In its purest form, politics in a democracy is about the contest for power. The best ideas don't always win, nor do the most deserving candidates or causes. It is the side that organises the best and mobilises its voters most effectively that carries the day and takes power. This is a lesson we learned in 1981, and it is lesson that is being learned in the Arab Spring states of Tunisia and Egypt where elections will soon decide which side initially takes power and reaps the benefits of the popular mobilisations that led to the downfall of regimes that governed for decades.

The uprisings in both countries have been called "Facebook Revolutions", but they will not have "Facebook Elections". Social media was but a communication vehicle that enabled young revolutionaries to break the regime's monopoly on information, to communicate with each other, and to mobilise demonstrations. They were able to brilliantly use these tools not only to organise in the streets, but also to send powerful images to the outside world revealing their government's abusive and brutal use of power and to generate support for their valiant efforts to make change happen. What remains to be seen is whether these same young revolutionaries, using these same tools, can organise voters and win elections, or will the older more established organisations with broad based support ultimately triumph?

An early indication of the limits of social media as an organising tool came with the referendum on constitutional amendments held in Egypt in March. In that contest the sides were clearly demarcated. The young revolutionaries and many progressive reformers opposed the reforms being proposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that had retained power after the departure of President Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood and other older established parties supported the military's proposal, since they saw the process outlined in that reform favouring their chances to win the next election, putting them in the driver's seat to write the new constitution and consolidate their power.

A survey of social media posts in the period immediately preceding the vote saw the revolutionaries clearly winning the Facebook war by a wide margin of tens of thousands opposed to the proposed reforms to a mere few thousands in favour. Friends associated with the progressive parties, with whom I spoke in the lead up to the vote, were confident of victory. In addition to being buoyed by the public support of the best known presidential candidates, former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa and Mohamed El-Baradei, they had been talking to each other and checking Facebook and were convinced they had majority support. The final tally showed how wrong they had been. The reforms won by a sweeping margin of 77 per cent in favour to a mere 23 per cent opposed. The revolutionaries had been out-organised.

Further evidence of the effectiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood's organising ability came with their recent victories winning elections and consolidating their hold over Egypt's doctors' and teachers' syndicates.

With elections in Tunisia happening this week, and with Egypt's just around the corner, we need to be prepared to accept an outcome that may be disappointing to some, but should not be surprising to anyone. The new parties being formed by those who led the revolts have not yet jelled, nor are their roots deep enough or broad based enough to compete effectively.

But the final chapters of both revolutions will not be written by the outcomes of their first post-Arab Spring elections. If the young revolutionaries stay the course, build organisations strong enough to compete, and retain their commitment to freedom and democratic rights, they can be a permanent fixture on the political scene. Their time will come.

This was the view expressed by Ahmed Maher, one of the founders of Egypt's 6 April Movement that played a central role in the Tahrir Square revolt. On my weekly Abu Dhabi TV programme, Viewpoint, Maher discussed a long-term plan of direct engagement and organisation. 6 April, he said, had not finished its work of bringing real change and social justice to Egypt. Social media had been a useful tool for organisers to maintain communication, but what was needed now was "to find new ways to reach people" on the streets where they live. And this will take, he noted, several more years of hard work. Maher was confident, however, that whatever the outcome of the election, change has occurred. The next president and parliament will not be able to operate as presidents and parliaments of the past. An empowered and organised public, Maher observed, will now serve as a check on power and a voice seeking social justice.

That, incidentally, was the story that played out on a smaller scale in Utica. John bounced back from defeat. Not only did he build a nationally recognised polling company, becoming a major employer in Utica, but he and his allies also set about to revitalise a citizen's lobby to continue to push for change in the city. Today, the old "political machine" is gone and many of the ideas that were advocated in "Utica 2000" have been implemented. Utica, once dying, has stabilised with new immigrants coming to the city bringing new vitality and energy, creating jobs and rebuilding old neighbourhoods.

The lesson here is clear. Victory doesn't come easy and it doesn't go to the side with the best ideas, or even to the one that expresses its ideas best, the most frequently, or to the largest audience. Whether in a small city or a big country, change will only come through organisation and ability to mobilise people to press for change.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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