Friday, June 15, 2012

Dear Huffington Post

Of all the comments that I could make in response to the military regime's latest ugly assault on Egypt, I know that what I'm about to say is trivial. Still, I feel the need to point something out to the good people at the Huffington Post.

This is a screen capture showing part of the Huffington Post main page:

And this is a screen capture showing my modified version of the same:

Just sayin'.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

On the Streets, at the Ballots ... and Everywhere Else

Last month, after the army and plainclothes thugs broke up anti-SCAF protests in Abbasiyya, the supporters of the regime started to believe that they were bringing an end to Egypt's revolution. Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister and current presidential candidate, declared that Abbasiyya was "a sample" of what would happen if protests continued after he - in his estimation - becomes president.

The return of protests all across Egypt yesterday ought to give Shafiq pause, as it should do for SCAF and the regime which backs them both. Like many people, I am at my most optimistic when I see Egyptians taking to the streets en masse to defy authoritarianism and demand a better present. The approach of coming together to form a fist which imposes demands on the regime has been very successful in the past 18 months. But not every goal of this revolution can be achieved by mass protest. In other words (and to extend the metaphor) as effective the revolution's fist has been, it has not always succeeded in fighting the regime's innumerable fingers.

The outrageous verdict which sparked yesterday's protests clarifies this point. How could Mubarak and former interior minister Habib El-Adly be convicted and sentenced to life in prison for complicity in killing protestors, but the six police generals who carried their orders down the chain of command be acquitted due to lack of evidence? While the logic of the verdicts is incoherent, the message is as simple as it is unacceptable: if you serve the regime loyally, you will face no consequences for your crimes, even if the leadership of that regime is replaced. These verdicts represent a political calculation, not a true judicial process.

SCAF, and the military regime it represents, has been forced to use Mubarak as a bargaining chip since February 2011. His demise, from resignation to arrest to trial to conviction, is an enormous achievement on the part of the revolution. Recall that, just 18 months ago, when Tunisians had not yet brought down Zine El-Abideen Ben-Ali, few Egyptians dared to imagine that Mubarak's 29-year rule could end this way. He may yet be acquitted on appeal. Still, for all of its power and deadliness, the regime continues to  prove itself afraid of the revolution's fist. But having a trial that promises a just verdict rather than a political one cannot, by definition, happen by forcing SCAF to order the right verdict. It requires a process of reform that appoints truly independent judges.

Imposing the people's will on the regime works when extracting large single concessions (resignations of key figures, setting an election timetable). For those, a large de-centralized mass of people forcing a dictatorship to act has succeeded beyond anyone's original expectations. But cleaning up the culture of authoritarianism and corruption that dominates the state, from the security forces to the judiciary to the media and elsewhere, requires the revolution to replace the regime in all of those institutions.

No million-man march will force the government to end corruption with the stroke of a pen, as demonstrated by the failed premiership of Essam Sharaf last year. You can't have nation-wide marches to force the resignation of every corrupt official one at a time. Even if the generals of SCAF were to resign and hand over genuine power to a civilian authority, that new leadership would be forced to contend with institutions built on six decades of despotism. It is not clear whether such leadership is more likely to reform those institutions or be corrupted by them.

And so, while the revolution can and should continue fighting the regime at the very top with both protests and votes, it is no less important to take a ground-up approach of replacing the regime in every school, precinct, courthouse, and council. One of the most inspiring events to happen in Egypt last year was the simple refusal of a group of port officials in Suez to sign off on a shipment of tear gas coming into the country (unfortunately, the shipment came in anyway). There needs to be a focus on placing and supporting such people in every institution in Egypt.

Six decades of military dictatorship have allowed corruption to extend its fingers into every area of Egyptian society. Fighting this regime on all of those fronts, as many brave people are already doing, will be hard and not-always-inspiring work. It involves engaging the political and institutional process rather than just condemning it and imposing change on it. This work is, however, as necessary as any march. The revolution won't succeed without it.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Prisoner for Life

What was beyond anyone's hopes just 18 months ago is now unacceptable, and that's as it should be.

More thoughts on Mubarak's verdict to come.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Room for Grey

Given that he called the expectation-defying election results three days in advance, it's no surprise that a lot of people are endorsing Mahmoud Salem's "no room for grey" theory of Egyptian politics. Read the piece by Salem, aka Sandmonkey, at the Daily Beast or on his blog. I agree with many of Salem's observations, but I also believe that his main point is unsubstantiated and quite possibly incorrect.

First, some points of agreement. Salem is right in calling out that the media for declaring Aboelfotouh and Moussa to be the frontrunners without clear data. His cynical but spot on critique of these presumptive frontrunners' debate performances is classic Sandmonkey ("you are not supposed to debate your opponent in presidential debates"). His closing paragraph captures our messy politics quite well, and even does so without resorting to any tired clichés about politics and beds (that's apparently more than I can do).

But do any of these points, or the others that he makes in the piece, prove that Aboelfotouh and Moussa lost because they courted a non-existent centre of Egyptian politics? No.

Let's look at the still unofficial election results, from Iyad El-Baghdadi and Galal Amr:
  1. Mursi - 26%
  2. Shafik - 23%
  3. Sabahi - 22%
  4. Aboelfotouh - 18%
  5. Moussa - 11%
Salem's "black-and-white" candidates are in the top three spots, with a total of 71% of the vote. The two "grey" candidates only managed 29%. On the one hand, 29% is a weak showing. On the other hand, it's hardly weak enough to justify dismissing centrism as a part of Egyptian politics, especially when the centrist candidates' votes add up to more than those of the leading candidate.

Moreover, and this is the more important point, it is not clear that centrism is to blame for the losses of Aboelfotouh and Moussa. From Salem's piece (emphasis added):
Either way, neither Moussa nor Fotouh will get the large centrist majority needed to win the first round or at least secure a place in the runoff. They might still get in, but it will depend on their get-out-the-vote campaign on election day. And while Sabahi has the ElBaradeites, Morsi the Muslim Brotherhood, Shafiq the old National Democratic Party, and Fotouh the Noor Salafi machine, Moussa doesn’t really have anyone but his campaign and the few liberal parties that have supported him. There are no excited, hardcore Moussa supporters out there. He is far too gray.
Salem correctly notes the importance of the ground game in elections, correctly notes that Moussa does not have the organization to win the ground game, but then still blames Moussa's failure on his lack of ideology rather than his lack of organization. You could argue that his centrism is why Moussa failed to build a political organization, which seems to be Salem's point. But, in the absence of clear data, you could also blame lack of vitality on the campaign trail (at 75, Moussa is easily the oldest candidate), lack of personal charisma, or a number of other factors.

But what about Aboelfotouh? Isn't his loss added proof of the failure of centrism? No, actually. Aboelfotouh won slightly over 2 votes for every 3 that Mursi won. But Mursi is the official candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood), which currently runs the best-organized political machine in the country, while Aboelfotouh only had a year to build a political organization since his ouster from the Brotherhood. Is Salem arguing that if Mursi had run the same black-and-white campaign, but had done so as an independent, he would have still beaten Aboelfotouh by the same margin? Unlikely. I suspect that Mursi's lead has more to do with party discipline than it does with the average voter's supposed preference for ideological purity.

And that's why I think it's important to question Salem's hypothesis, and to try to find more data to prove or disprove it. If Salem is correct, then the path to political success in Egypt lies in being a purist until such time as a centrist political constituency develops. If he is incorrect, then that constituency already exists, and simply requires a more politically experienced and organized party to win its votes. I suspect the latter is true, but as Salem might say, there's a little too much grey right now for us to know for sure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Egypt's Presidential Election: The Next Step

How is it that a basic right can also be a debt that is impossible to repay? This question first occurred to me as I marked my mail-in ballot last week, and no good answer has come to me since. When voting in a country with a long history of democracy (I've done so half a dozen times to date) it's easier to choose the least bad (or, occasionally, the best) option. It's quite another thing to do so while knowing how many people died in the past sixteen months alone in order to make your vote count.

Today is the first day of the two-day vote in Egypt. The significance of this moment can be summarized by saying that (1) we are choosing the next Egyptian president, and (2) nobody knows who that president will be. Thirteen candidates are on the ballot. If none of them gets 50% of the vote in this first round, the top two candidates will compete in a run-off vote in June. After the president is elected, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will hand over power by the end of June .. officially anyway. The military junta's plans for what comes afterwards are not yet fully clear. 

But what's best about this moment is that it's a time when we are more interested in what the people will do. This, in fact, has been one of the standards by which I've measured my optimism since February of 2011. The more our conversation has been about what the people are doing or will do, whether on the street or in the voting booth, the more optimistic I've been. And, yes, both street action and voting have been essential in bringing us closer to ending the past six decades of military dictatorship.

As many others have noted before me, the regime that brought Mubarak to power has yet to fall. Still, the ouster of Mubarak and his crew created a space for alternative political processes to grow at the expense of the dictatorship. And in the past sixteen months, we've pretty much worked with the whole non-dictatorial political spectrum, from anarchy to direct democracy to representative democracy. The street protests, which can be described as anarchist in that they have no clearly defined leadership or hierarchy, have to my mind been the most effective in the fight against SCAF so far. But, as we've seen in the past year, street protests are not necessarily the most effective means of dealing with sectarianism, lack of foreign currency reserves, institutional corruption, or cross-border tensions, to mention just a few pressing issues.  

Our one experiment with direct democracy, in the form of the March 2011 referendum, was undermined by the fact that the only authority that was around to interpret and act on the results of the vote was SCAF. A lot of real and virtual ink has been spent debating what effect the results of the referendum had on the transition. I maintain that, so long as the only institution in the country able to act on the referendum was the military junta, they were always going to twist any vote and use it for their own ends. 

Since the parliamentary election in November, and with today's presidential election, we have been working with representative democracy. The question is: how effective will the parliament and the presidency be, and will they gain enough public confidence for Egyptians to continue to support the democratic process? 

My largest worry for the near future is that the natural inefficiencies of democratic institutions, when weighed against the sacrifices that were made and the problems facing the country, would lead people to lose faith in democracy. In such a case, the cynics would hope for a return to the stability of dictatorship, while the idealists would suspend their efforts on the democratic project and return purely to anarchy. It remains possible that a fraudulent transfer of power by SCAF, or a betrayal of democracy by elected politicians, would in fact necessitate a return to January, when rights were won only on the street. But right now we have a clear opportunity to build lasting democratic institutions. I believe that we can and will put it to good use.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Quick Note to Egyptians Voting from Overseas

With less than three days left to register to vote for the Egyptian presidential elections, the number of Egyptians who have registered to vote from abroad remains a little under 0.5 million (out of an estimated total of 10 million Egyptian expatriates). If you haven't registered yet, you should go here now and do so.

Truth be told, the registration process is more complicated than it needs to be, and is made worse by some bugs in the online system. It took me several days to register successfully. In case it helps others, here are the main three problems I ran into while registering (note that the first two problems should no longer be an issue for anyone):

  1. At first, not all National ID numbers were recorded in the online database. When I tried to register, the form did not recognize my ID number. So I sent out a "trouble ticket" (you can do so here), and was told that all numbers would be in the database by March 24th. Truly enough, my number was accepted by the website on the 25th.
  2. The system did not recognize my mother's first name. Once you enter your ID number, you're taken to an online form which requires you to enter a lot of information which includes your mother's first name. Every time I filled out the form, I got an error message telling me that I had entered this name incorrectly (seems I wasn't the only one; the trouble ticket form I linked to above allows you to select "Problems related to mother's first name" directly from a drop down menu). The response to my second trouble ticket said that there was a bug in the system, which would be fixed within 48 hours. Partially true, since another family member of mine who got the same error message succeeded in registering after the 48 hours had passed. I, on the other hand, kept getting the same error message.
  3. The system has trouble with the letter "هاء". Specifically, if your mother's name is spelt with "تاء التأنيث" at the end, the database probably has it with the letter "هاء" instead. That's common enough, and I tried the alternate spelling unsuccessfully before sending my trouble ticket. The problem was hard to pinpoint: the "هاء" that the website uses as a substitute for "تاء التأنيث" is different than the one it uses everywhere else (i.e., my father's name ends with the letter "هاء", and there were no problems there). After a few back and forth e-mails with tech support, they e-mailed me my mother's name as listed in their database, and asked me to copy and paste it directly into the form. This worked, allowing me to successfully register. If you're running into this same problem, try copying and pasting this "ه" into your form (note that it's slightly different than this "ه").

Since I spent a few days communicating with tech support through forms and e-mails, it's worth mentioning that the tech support staff for the online registration system is excellent. They're quick to respond, and very helpful. My troubles and complaints aside, I'm very glad to see the effort that's being made to help Egyptian expatriates vote. Take advantage of the opportunity, and give your feedback. You'll be doing yourself and everyone else a service.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Things Tantawi & Co. Don't Seem to Understand ..

.. based on this speech:

  1. When people are being killed on the streets, you don't offer condolences. You stop the violence immediately, and bring its perpetrators to justice.
  2. Lack of security over a period of months is not an excuse for bad governance, it is a result of it. The same is true of a deteriorating economy.
  3. Complaining about "ever-increasing" demands without identifying a single concrete achievement during your rule is a mark of irresponsibility.
  4. Refraining from shooting civilians is not a concrete achievement.
  5. Saying that you have "stopped trying civilians by military tribunal except in cases where military law applies" is ... such nonsense that I'm not sure where to begin, except to say that it does nothing for the 12,000 civilians who have already faced military tribunals since February.
  6. Declaring support for democracy while arguing that "the criticisms directed at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces only aim to weaken our resolve, reduce public trust in the military, and indeed cause the collapse of the Egyptian state" is a contradiction.
  7. Assurances of parliamentary and presidential elections are insufficient if the resulting civilian government has no authority over the military.
  8. If you can offer to hold an "immediate" referendum on military rule, you can complete parliamentary and presidential elections and hand over power a lot sooner than June 2012.