The intense weeks of Egypt’s presidential elections were tough on everyone. Constant debates – heated debates, and aggressive arguments catapulted all over no-man’s land, and even the tightest of political groups were threatened by divisions.
I personally went through quite an emotionally exhausting time myself, and I’ll recognize that my strong feeling towards my position with regards to the elections (I boycotted both rounds) hindered my ability to successfully carry out fruitful conversations. Interestingly enough, it was a difficult time for Egypt’s Marxist left, themselves barely surviving a shaky road throughout the events.
This overdue post comes after the fiasco has come to an end, and after I’ve had the luxury to look back and reflect. My goal here is to argue that, from my take on Marxist theory, there are fewer reasons to participate in bourgeois elections, and that boycotting should be the likely stance. I say it as a proud Marxist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt.
Traditional Marxism and elections
For quick recap on Lenin’s position with regards to the boycott, read the chapter in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Should we Participate in Bourgeois Parliaments? Written in 1920. On July 23rd this year, John Molyneux wrote a blog post specifically handling the Marxist approach to Egypt’s presidential elections; Revolutionaries and Elections. It was Molyneux’s post that provoked me to respond and articulate my strong disagreement with many points and assumptions put forward.
Lenin’s arguments could be summarized in that the Revolutionary Marxists should be within reach of the working class, and not make intellectual stances that are not shared by the majority, and in some cases not even comprehend. While the revolutionary party is very politically aware, and has rightly branded bourgeois elections a trap by the regime and the capitalists, the members of the working class are not. As an intellectual elite attempting to organize and mobilize the masses to bring an end to the oppressive regime, it is the responsibility of the revolutionary party to spread awareness and recruit, but it is also essential to reach out and understand the needs and roles of the working class. If the majority of the proletariat has opted to participate in the theatrical play, it cannot be ignored.
Moreover, according to Lenin, as the working class falls for the trap of supporting the counterrevolutionary forces, it is essential to take part in the battle and sway the workers’ support away from the regime and eventually within the leftist ideology.
Molyneux applies the theory and argues for the practice, pointing out the following:
- While elections are not decisive, they certainly make a difference, especially with the circumstances in which the working class has to fight. This would mean that Morsi’s arrival at the presidential palace is less of a threat to the struggle of the proletariat than Shafik’s. It’s easier, or less difficult, to fight the regime with Morsi as president
- The revolutionary party may be well aware of the ruling elite’s farce, but for the millions of Egyptians, “elections are time of heightened political awareness when their minds are focused on political debate.” It is a time to spread socialist views and propaganda. This in turn implies spreading ideas such as minimum wage and freedom of information, while backing Hamdeen Sabbahi to help him win
- Having revolutionaries in bourgeois parliaments “enables them to act as ‘tribunes of the people’, as ‘megaphones’ for socialist ideas, and as rallying points for campaigns by working people and the oppressed.” Therefore, someone like Sabbahi as president, or deputies with revolutionary ideas in the parliament, would help agitate Egyptians to support the revolutionary movement
According to Molyneux, the revolutionary party should in fact bring forward a candidate. And if that is not feasible, join a wider coalition to back a candidate highlighting the revolutionary demands.
Revisiting the Marxist approach to bourgeois elections
My disagreement is both on a theoretical level, as well as on the ground in Egypt.
When Lenin spoke of the importance of participating in bourgeois elections, he was living in desperate times. For many of revolutionary movements worldwide, elections are a platform to reach out to the working class, spread leftist ideas, and make political gains to facilitate the struggle towards the socialist revolution.
But that was a hundred years ago.
We live in the information age. A third of Egyptians are on the internet, 12 million of them are on Facebook, and virtually every single Egyptian owns a mobile phone (the majority of which are Bluetooth-enabled with memory cards and multimedia capacity). Practically every household has a satellite dish bringing in hundreds of independent TV channels (local and foreign).
Moreover, transportation is cheaper and easier, and setting up open forums in every city and major town across the republic requires no more than a bit of planning and a handful of small donations.
Our ability to learn has significantly superseded that of our ancestors, and a couple of YouTube videos with passionate debates goes a long way, the equivalent of nine months in Bolshevik time, I would say.
A presidential campaign in Egypt officially caps at 10 million Pounds (and there’s reason to believe that few candidates abode), and hundreds of volunteers are involved. A Kazeboon campaign requires no more than four individuals and is practically free. In fact, it’s cheaper, easier, and much more effective to work on a local level with a structured network of revolutionaries organizing events and embracing technology in the meantime.
To consider the elections as one of the strongest methods of engaging with the working class on a political level is to be completely oblivious to the reality of communication on the ground, or to be taking Lenin’s word literally and ignoring the ever-changing and dynamic context.
As for the problem of members of the working class leaning towards counterrevolutionary forces, I think it’s obvious that, as revolutionaries, we can spread awareness and campaign against the regime in the context of a boycott. The only reason why any voter would require an alternative is because he or she is convinced that participating in the elections is beneficial. Accordingly, campaigning against candidates from the ruling elite makes more sense from the perspective that the entire system requires an overhaul.
Which brings me to Molyneux’s argument.
John Molyneux is by far one of my favorite socialist writers. In fact, his book, What is the real Marxist tradition?, was one of the first I read regarding Marxist theory – a book I highly cherish. However, I would make the bold argument that Molyneux has very limited knowledge of the politics on the ground in Egypt (something he himself recognizes to a certain degree).
Claiming that participation in Egypt’s presidential elections can help make political gains is based on false assumptions. There’s no mention of the flawed process, the hundreds of complaints regarding irregularities, and the millions of Egyptians who did not show up at the polls (for various reasons).
More importantly, Molyneux doesn’t seem to comprehend that, for SCAF, as the leading counterrevolutionary force in Egypt, legitimacy is key. Has anyone every wondered why voting occurs over two days, when any other fake democracy in the world strives to complete the process in a single day? Why were the polls open for 13 hours on each day? Why would the state spend a good sum of money on commercials indoctrinating the masses to line up for the boxes?
I think the answer’s evident. The counterrevolutionary forces were desperate to gain legitimacy and bring an end to the uprising. A high turnout was a win for SCAF and they were fully aware of it. And if we are to speak of the majority of the working class, how can we overlook that only 46% of the voting population participated in the first round? How does 23 million, out of 85 million Egyptians, translating as the majority of the working class? There are more Egyptians on the internet. In fact, Morsi and Shafik’s collective votes in the first round is still less than the number of Egyptians on Facebook.
Election times is always accompanied with constant political talk, yes. Which is why no one is against talking politics and campaigning during the event, not even the most extreme of boycotters. And those who were actively participating in the Egyptian uprising from the very beginning will confirm that there were various moments when political awareness was a national sport. Consider the time of the clashes at Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud, Cabinet, etc. In fact, I would argue that more Egyptians discussed politics following the Port Said massacre than during the downtime between election rounds.
A common misconception amongst foreigners analyzing the Egyptian situation is that, by having a minority of revolutionaries in the parliament, we would be helping the working class struggle from within the regime in parallel to the battles on the ground. During the weeks of fierce arguments with fellow comrades with regards to our stance regarding the second round, I have never heard anyone argue that there were any gains to be made by having revolutionaries in our house of parliament, with the current setup and regime.
Not to mention that the entire parliament has been dissolved! How many pro-participation foreign analysts ever expected that? And with the power of hindsight, who in the right state of mind would argue for the participation in that particular parliament?
Sometimes it is tactically inevitable to take part in bourgeois elections, like in the case of Greece, for example. But it is dangerous to make similar sort of assumptions with regards to Egypt which is a completely different case altogether.
As Revolutionary Marxists, what do we lose by taking part in Egypt’s elections?
We’ll start with the obvious, which would apply to any bourgeois election, really, and that is legitimizing the ruling class’s tool to oppress and control the rest. It is allowing the fake democracy to appear more real, facilitating the justification behind its actions.
In Egypt’s case in particular, elections have benefited SCAF and the counterrevolutionary forces significantly more than it has aided the uprising. In September and October 2011, Egypt witnessed an unprecedented wave of labor strikes that rocked the state from every corner. Workers went on strikes going from the sea port, to the teachers, and the airport, as well as many other sectors. This indicates that the class consciousnesses amongst the proletariat, in general, was on the rise.
So what happened? Parliamentary elections. Worked like magic.
Just like that, the rising tides of the strike waves calmed down like the solution was just around the corner. And that’s exactly what bourgeois elections communicate. As a result, it is taking almost a year for the labor strikes to pick up again and we’re still far from level.
As the revolutionary party, our responsibility is to spread the propaganda that agitates the members of the working class to organize themselves, create independent labor unions, and fight for their rights. How could we possibly carry out such a task when we are supporting the very event that successfully shoots down the political activity we’re seeking?
Not all elections automatically swing one way or the way, but Egypt’s elections during the revolution, and, by the looks of it, the series of upcoming events, offer little to none political benefits for the socialist uprising.
Finally, another major loss inflicted by the participation in Egypt’s elections lies in facilitating the anti-labor laws that are put forward by the candidates. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood might be generally more lax with political activists that SCAF’s Shafik, but they are both equally brutal in dealing with workers’ rights. Therefore, by refusing to add numbers to the ballots, it becomes more difficult for the winning candidate to enforce laws that might backfire.
If Morsi’s victory was via a re-run with less than a 30% turnout, he wouldn’t have been confidently applying the Muslim Brotherhood’s far-right Renaissance program in fear of an unfavorable reaction by the labor unions. As a result, legitimizing the process hardens the circumstances for struggle – quite the opposite of what Lenin was after with his theory.
With the parliamentary elections, SCAF democratically shot down labor strikes, ended political activity on the ground, and months later, when the public’s support had dropped low enough, dissolved the parliament altogether. Our gains were zero, and our losses are alive and kicking, still.
What I also find interesting about Molineux’s argument is his inclination towards Sabbahi, a ghost candidate that no one, not even his most delusional fanatics, expected him to finish forth, let alone flirt with the runner up spot from third. So on what basis would the revolutionary left support him – the fact that his idol and role model is a Stalinist military dictator that tortured and imprisoned workers striking against the regime?
Thus, Molineux brought up Lenin’s Left Wing Communism again as a relevant text against pro-boycotting leftists in Egypt who “tend to be (mainly if not exclusively) young recently revolutionized workers and street fighters.” Apparently, we “lack experience and training in revolutionary strategy and tactics.” That’s a possibility, but why don’t we consider it’s opposite? Many of the proponents of participation tend to be (mainly if not exclusively) old comrades who have lost touch with the streets and rely on theoretical books in century-old contexts and little contact with the working class and Egypt’s youth, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Molineux himself has very limited knowledge of the street pulse in Egypt and is left making assumptions Lenin made about the German left last century, and applying it to a country whose language, so say the least, is beyond his comprehension.
In conclusion, as a Marxist Revolutionary Socialist, I am convinced that we have to stick to Marxist and Leninist traditions by giving less weight to the actions taken, and more value to the goals that, given today’s dynamic context, require actions sometimes contrary to those that succeeded 100 years ago in Russia and Western Europe. As the revolutionary party, our goal is to engage with our working class via the technology it has embraced, spread valuable information that raises the level of class consciousness and empowers the proletariat to organize, mobilize, and fight the regime. Otherwise we’re overlooking the political activity on the ground, and blindly applying the theory that could yield counter-productive results.
I am confident Egypt’s working class will prove me right with constantly lower turnouts in the upcoming elections, as the labor movement in general picks up, and brings down the regime. It’s going to be beautiful.