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vendredi 25 mai 2012

More elections, this time in Egypt

Here are some quick thoughts on the Egyptian election.

1. So people are electing a president whose powers are not defined. They will be defined later in the Constitution, once it gets written. Maybe this is putting the cart before the horse, but if all anyone focuses on is that the foundation is not fully laid, nothing will be built.

2. Many of the reports feature quotes where people say that for the first time they feel as though their vote counts and their voice is being heard. This is immeasurably important. In a dictatorship, the choices are be trampled on or join forces with the dictator. Neither one is a very good choice. The possibility of making one's voice heard without abetting a dictatorship is liberating. Once people feel that they can affect what happens to them and believe that there will be dividends to planning for the future, other aspects can take off; business, education, social entrepreneurship. Investing in something for future gains can only happen when people believe that those gains will not be taken away from them. Otherwise, people only focus on the here and now, which is admittedly a Herculean task for the many Egyptians mired in poverty.

3. Some of the reporting focuses on Copts, and their voting to exclude an Islamist candidate. That's an understandable strategy. Clearly, they are worried, and they have reason to be. How popularly elected regimes in Muslim countries deal with religious minorities is an open question. And the answer is often not well, as this op-ed about Indonesia demonstrates.

However, and this is a big however, majority Muslim countries need to come to terms with how they choose to reconcile religion and government. For that reason, the participation of Islamist parties and candidates is key. Religion plays a very important role in Egyptians' lives.  In fact, religion plays an important role in many people's lives, the world over. It's an issue with which we continue to struggle here in the United States, and the way religion and politics intersect evolves and develops with time.

Here are two larger points, about Islamists and elections:

Whether or not third parties are comfortable with Islamists, they represent a political current in Muslim majority states. Since people support them, it is necessary for observers to take them seriously and deal with them, not some imaginary, wish-fulfillment character. And not some telegenic, charismatic, English-speaker. If a candidate or party is trying too hard to win over outsiders, why should Egyptian (or other) voters trust that this person has their interests in mind? Of course, maybe observers should consider the reasons why Islamist parties and candidates garner support. There are a couple reasons. First, people are seeking an alternative to their present leaders, who serve their interests poorly. Second, many people believe that Islamist parties and candidates are more moral and less corrupt. If your country is plagued by corruption and graft, it is rational to seek an alternative. Finally, many workaday people are proud of their religion and heritage and would like to be able to express those feelings openly, which has not been possible under a significant number of dictatorships. Remember that people were arrested in Tunisia just for attending dawn prayers too often before rolling one's eyes and exclaiming "why do they care so much?"

Now, some of the appeal is also based on what Islamist parties claim they will do. And there, as with all such claims, what they say must be taken with a grain of salt. That said, while Islamists are outside of power, they can claim whatever they want, and their claims are not tested. Once they are tested in government, with competing interests and the balancing and compromise that entails, their claims may seem unrealistic. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it's a necessary step to creating a functioning democracy.

Let's develop this idea further. When people vote, they vote for whichever candidate represents what they want or need. Then, if they are happy with that person or party, they can vote for them again. If they are not happy, they can vote for someone else. Different voting schemes allow for different methods of picking candidates. Thus, two rounds, as in Egypt, allows for a fuller field of candidates, to represent a wider variety of opinions, and then the run-off affords citizens the opportunity to fine-tune and recalibrate their expectations. Thus, a person could have entirely different, but equally legitimate reasons for first and second round picks. While this may seem strange from a U.S. two-party viewpoint, it probably actually allows for more viewpoints and possibility of compromise. It's a mistake to look at elections either as an end in themselves or as a finished product. Legitimate government is only possible with long-term, sustained participation by electors, with regular elections to act as a regulating mechanism.

It looks as though the front-runners are Shafik and Morsi. Your blogger would have preferred Aboul Foutoh, since his break with the Muslim Brotherhood represents a crack in the fortress of their monopoly on Islamist politics and a welcome step toward pluralism. Whatever happens in the second round, it will certainly be interesting.

Finally, Egyptians are approaching the elections with humor, which is a nice change of pace from either overly optimistic or non-stop doom and gloom reporting.

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