Egypt: Poll shows weight of old forces, but left candidate comes third
Austin Mackell is an Australian journalist based in Cairo who reports on Egyptian politics, the labour movement and life on the street. In February, he was arrested in Mahalla el-Kubra while reporting on an attempted general strike. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's Patrick Harrison. A longer version of this interview can be found on here.
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The first round of the presidential elections took place on May 23 and 24, the second round will take place on June 16 and 17. What do the results so far show?
The first round of the elections show the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the old regime are still able to out-compete the revolutionaries in an electoral process.
The winner, by a small margin, was the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. Second was Ahmed Shafik, appointed prime minister under Hosni Mubarak at the very last minute of his regime's life. It looks now like the final race will be between those two candidates, which is a huge disappointment for the revolutionaries.
Secular left-wing candidate Hamdeen Sabahi was written off by many as an outsider because he didn't have the resources and infrastructure of other candidates. He came in third.
He was also competing for the vote with Abul Fotouh, an Islamist who had split from the Brotherhood who was also considered a revolutionary candidate. If they'd had a combined vote, they would have had a clear lead.
Many revolutionaries boycotted the first round. I wonder if they are questioning that seeing how close Sabahi came to winning. Now there is a much stronger call for a boycott, since it's the Muslim Brotherhood versus the old regime.
There's been some controversy over some revolutionaries backing the Muslim Brotherhood because at least they aren't from the old dictatorship. Others are saying no, they already have control of the parliament, handing them control of the presidency as well would be too much control.
That is the position of most revolutionaries ― in terms of people who have been active on the streets and are still saying the street is where the battle lies.
It is the position of the April 6 youth movement, which didn't contest the elections. Its activists said you don't have elections during a revolutionary phase, the revolution has to be more complete.
Who is Hamdeen Sabahi?
Sabahi is the founder of the Dignity Party. He won a seat in parliament under Mubarak in 2005. He is credited with being one of the few voices of resistance in that parliament asides from the Brotherhood.
He ran as a candidate of the poor. His party is Nasserist, carrying on the spirit of "pan-Arab socialism" associated with former Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser.
How widely was the boycott observed?
It's hard to know. It's clear the turnout was lower than the parliamentary elections [completed in January]. Some revolutionaries have called that a victory, saying it means the population is losing faith in the regime's electoral process.
But you could also argue that was simply the result of the Salafi [Islamist] candidate Abu Ismail being disqualified ahead of the poll. You can imagine a lot of the Salafists were a lot less motivated to vote without a major Salafi candidate on the ballot.
This would also explain why there was what has been considered a majority secular vote, if you add up to votes for Sabahi, Shafik and Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister.
That was probably a bigger factor in people not voting than the active calls for a boycott from Tahrir Square and the revolutionary youth networks around it.
Is Tahrir Square still occupied?
There is basically a constant occupation now in Tahrir Square with people protesting. The square has been pretty much permanently occupied since the clashes in early December.
All throughout last year, there was an ongoing struggle for control of the square. Now it seems the army and the police have pretty much given up on it. So the revolutionary youth won the space.
The latest clashes have taken place outside the ministry of defence, which occurred just before the elections. It involved Salafis demonstrating because their candidate had been disqualified.
They were joined by secular supporters and opponents of the SCAF [the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which took power after Mubarak resigned]. There were 11 deaths reported in clashes in the final week before the election.
There is still definitely real tension on the streets and the possibility of more of these battles. The protesters are moving on to more confrontation ― saying we've got Tahrir now, let's move on the next seat of power.
Is the Brotherhood's first round win likely to weaken SCAF's hold over the country?
It is certainly going to change the balance of power. But how the relationship between the Brotherhood and the military will evolve is difficult to know.
People are talking about some kind of deal being made between the Brotherhood and the SCAF. But I don't think that there's a marriage between the two about to take place where they unite as the new, stable elite, although something like that may evolve.
Things are really in flux here, there aren't established political forces. There is the Brotherhood and the military, but there is are also huge chaotic force at work.
How has the labour movement related to the elections?
The one thing that was clear after the parliamentary elections was that the labour movement had not emerged as a political force. But with the emergence of Sabahi as such a strong candidate, there's evidence that this is on the cards.
This was a surprise to many here, including people like me with an interest in the labour movement, as we didn't see anything like this gaining support in the parliamentary elections.
But there's clearly an affinity for labour in Sabahi's platform. We don't know how real that would be if he got into power, of course.
His candidacy underlines the new dynamics starting to emerge. There are candidates like Moussa and Shafik, whose primary qualifications are having served in the old regime, and whose popularity comes from things such as name recognition.
But if you remove them from the equation, you have the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic conservatism on the right and then Arab nationalism on the left, and then you have a candidate like Abul Fotouh in the middle who is some kind of mix of all of those.
How did radical left forces go in the poll?
That depends how you define "radical". There was Khaled Ali, who was seen as the candidate of the revolutionary youth. He is not as far to the left as the Revolutionary Socialists, who didn't field a candidate, but earned a lot of ire when leading figures suggested backing Morsi to prevent the victory of Shafik.
But the candidate on the left of note was Sabahi ― and his platform was significantly to the left. The difference between Sabahi, on one hand, and Shafik or Moussa on the other, was much bigger than the difference between major left and right candidates in any Western elections.
So the revolutionary situation has already opened up more democratic space than we have in the West.
Sabahi's platform was explicitly about wealth redistribution; instead of following the line of the International Monetary Fund for cutting or "targetting" subsidies, he's talking about the need to expand subsidies and providing more services.
His success has come as a surprise, and it changes the political landscape. Of course, the success of Shafik and Morsi were also surprises, and much more unpleasant ones.
What is the latest with your case? Has the regime indicated if they are going to press charges?
We're still not clear whether we'll be taken to court or not. The charges are with the prosecutor's office, who is then meant to decide whether it goes to court or the case is archived.
There has not been any real progress. We've heard of paper moving from one office to another, so we don't know when to expect any resolution.
Are you free to travel and report?
To an extent. My passport was taken when I was arrested, and it's being held along with my laptop and camera and other stuff, so it makes it quite difficult to move around.
There's a veiled threat in all of this. We're very confident we would win if the case went to court, but however improbable it is, the idea of a five-to-seven year jail sentence is in the back of your mind. It makes it hard to live a normal life, let alone work or move around.
What do you have to say to the Australian government?
I wish [foreign minister] Bob Carr would take a more active interest in the case. He hasn't responded to any of my friends, family or supporters. Even through the union, I was only able to get what looked like a form letter from him saying they can't interfere with the Egyptian legal process.
On the other hand, the motion introduced by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon to the Senate was passed calling on the Australian government to ensure due process was followed.
From the beginning, the arrest was an act of political thuggery, not a matter of law and order. The Australian government should speak out on that, as it should have for all of the human rights abuses committed by the Egyptian forces and all of the remnants of the old regime.
But there's a silence on that, as there is on so many other issues, because Washington says to be quiet about it, so we do.
My case is nothing compared to what happened to Australian citizens such as David Hicks or Mamdouh Habib. Habib was brought to Egypt and tortured for six months. He has alleged the Australian government was complicit in that.