Victory for freedom to choose
While some may balk at the results of the first round of the presidential elections, the process as a whole needs to be understood as a victory for the revolution, writes Azmi Ashour
All Egyptian political forces, from revolutionaries to the supporters of the old regime, passing through the diverse shades of the spectrum, shared the same failing. They looked at the political realities around them from a single perspective. Rather than taking the larger view and comparing circumstances as they stood before the 25 January Revolution with the situation as it unfolded in the course of a year and half worth of changes on the ground since the revolution, they let their convictions shape their analyses and looked only for what confirmed their biases. A more objective approach would have enabled them to appreciate the gains we have made.
The revolution has accomplished much. It toppled the previous regime and put paid to the hereditary succession scenario that would have led the country to a grim fate. Of more long-term significance, the people began to breathe politics, whether in terms of a politically enhanced collective consciousness that grew more aware of -- and involved in -- the discussions on rights, citizenship and the future of Egypt, or in the terms of institutional frameworks and political involvement. The legislative elections that resulted in an Islamist victory may have been controversial because of the unfair framework that governed them, but the balloting process and the tabulation of the results were clean, which is another significant achievement. There followed the president campaigns, the first round of which ended last week. Every one of the candidates merits praise, even if they were not fated to win. They took the nomination and campaign processes seriously and professionally, and they did not shrink in the face of the attacks and slurs abounding in post-revolutionary society and media, as they went out to meet the people to present their platforms and defend their ideas. Some of these candidates, such as Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, began this process immediately after the revolution and the diversity of the opinions and ideas they offered contributed greatly to intensifying the competition and augmenting the value of these elections. Age was certainly not an obstacle to any of these candidates. They often appeared more active and energetic than many young people as they presided over rallies, held conferences, and toured the remotest towns and villages to outline their platforms and advocate their ideas. It was unprecedented in Egypt for a presidential hopeful to reach out directly to the people in this way, in order to solicit their support, just as occurs in any other democratic country.
By the time the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Mursi, and the old regime's candidate, Ahmed Shafik, entered the race, the Egyptian political scene was shaped by new realities. These were apparent not only in the incredible diversity between the candidates but also in the fact that over the year and a half since the revolution public opinion had begun to form new convictions and criteria that they applied to candidates. Every candidate in these elections had a real constituency -- people who rallied around him for certain reasons. This reality throws into relief a central premise of the democratic process which is the need to accept and respect the convictions of each of these constituencies even if their ideas conflict with some others in society. If the Muslim Brotherhood had a large contingent of supporters, so too did the candidate for the old regime, as did the candidates for the revolution such as Abul-Fotouh and Sabahi. This very diversity reflects a very different picture of Egyptian public opinion today, one that is very diverse and that refutes the impression given by the Islamist dominated parliament created by the last legislative elections.
There has, thus, been a shift in the dynamics of the revolution from "million man marches" and other forms of mass action to the level of the individual member of society who has to make up his or her mind on the candidate that he or she will vote for. At this level, all are equal in their freedom to choose, which in turn calls into play the need to respect the results of this exercise of freedom, as long as the balloting process was clean and fair. If the Muslim Brotherhood candidate wins, it will not signify the defeat of the revolution and the victory of the Islamist project. Likewise, a Shafik victory would not reverse the revolution, but rather crown it, because it was the revolution that succeeded in generating a vibrant competition between different points of view, regardless of whether the ballots come out in favour of a candidate who may be indebted to the old regime. Respect for the will of the majority is the foremost principle of democracy that the revolution championed.
The results of the first round of the presidential polls, themselves, tell us much about the current trends of public opinion. Firstly, Mursi may have come out ahead in these polls, but this should not be read as an Islamist gain. Far from it: given that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won only 25 per cent of the ballots cast, their popularity has receded drastically since the People's Assembly elections in which they won 70 per cent of the seats. Moreover, the difference between his results and those of the runners up were only a matter of a few percentage points, and in one case a fraction of a percentage point. Shafik received 24.6 per cent of the vote, Sabahi 21 per cent, and Abul-Fotouh 18 per cent. Amr Moussa, the fifth placed candidate, trailed further behind at 11 per cent. This distribution of votes is totally different from what we saw in the legislative elections in which the Muslim Brothers were far ahead of their competitors. Moreover, we should also bear in mind two important factors. First, the Islamists form a single fixed and fully mobilised voting bloc in elections; second, voter turnout was around 50 per cent and that the majority of the silent half of the electorate would have been unlikely to vote pro-Islamist. If that silent majority had voted then the 25 per cent of the vote that went to Mursi could well have receded to 15 per cent, which is probably close to the actual numerical weight that political Islamist groups carry in society.
Second, the elections marked a clear victory for the freedom to choice. As the results indicate, one of the hallmarks of these polls was that the realm of personal convictions has gained ground at the expense of collective ideological or religious biases. What struck me most in the interviews I conducted with voters was the remarkable diversity I found within single families. In one case, for example, the father voted for Sabahi, the mother for Mursi, and the children for Abul-Futouh. This trend is highly significant, for it indicates the decline in "herd mentality" voting. The mother voted for Mursi not because she is a Muslim Brotherhood member but because she felt that this candidate and the Muslim Brotherhood's programme would be better for the country. Her husband understood and accepted this, even though he voted for Sabahi and will vote for Shafik in the run-off.
Third, many segments of society are increasingly reaching the conviction that post-revolutionary Egypt does not just belong to the groups who made the revolution or moved to the fore as a result of that revolution. In some measure this may account for the relatively high support for Shafik, who came within a hair's breadth of Mursi and will now be facing Mursi in the polls. As disappointing as this may be to many, the principle of freedom, which people have now begun to exercise because of the revolution, entails respect for differing opinions, the freedom to choose, and the will of the majority. These principles should not be denied even if the majority opts for an affiliate of the old regime.Fourth, the presidential polls, like the legislative elections, show that the socio-political interplay since the revolution is not a zero-sum game. If one of the revolutionary candidates did not win, this by no means implies that the revolution has failed or has been undermined. The new life that is being injected into the Egyptian state and the free and fair elections that have been held are truly victories for the revolution and the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law it espoused. When he takes office, the next president will face a crucial test. The very free will of the people that brought him to power can just as easily remove him from power if he fails to meet the demands not just of the majority that voted for him, but also of the minority that voted for other candidates, and equally as importantly if he is remiss in putting into effect the revolution's cries for freedom, social justice, and rule of law.
The presidential elections, regardless of who ultimately wins, have confirmed that the Egyptian people are determined to continue harvesting the crops that arose from the seeds planted in January last year. The people's right to nominate and choose their officials, the rule of law that we have just seen applied to the electoral processes, and respect for the outcome of the polls are among the democratic principles that have begun to take root in Egypt.
The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.