Saturday, November 12, 2005

Baheyya makes me want to know more about Egyptian politics

Yes, they have elections in Egypt.
No, not everybody votes.
Does that ever happen in America, land of the free, home of the brave, defender of democracy?
Well, sometimes. (Like last Tuesday?)

Egyptians are apathetic and don’t care to vote. This is the mother of all myths, unthinkingly parroted so many times by so many people that it’s sickening. Apathy is an atrocious little weasel word, invoked by the lazy and ignorant to “explain” that which they do not understand, and in the process feel all superior about themselves. Please pause for a second and think this one through. To judge “apathy,” one would have to clamber into people’s brains and look inside, now wouldn't one? Short of that, how do we really gauge whether someone is apathetic or not? I’d love to know. That Egyptians don’t care to vote is as clear as day, but whence comes the notion that this is due to “apathy”?

How can we really know what Egyptians are thinking or feeling about politics? I don’t trust any polling outfit in this country, such as they are, so even if pollsters went around door to door asking people how they feel about politics, that would never capture Egyptians’ complex mixture of extreme astuteness about and extreme distrust of politics. Again, why on earth would anyone package this under the simpleton rubric of ‘apathy’? That Egyptians distrust or even hate their politicians is one thing, that they are apathetic is to claim something else entirely. The interesting facts to learn are not why Egyptians don’t vote in an often violent and rigged process, but what they do to evade, surmount, or work with this distorted reality.

One highly underappreciated way to gauge this is to observe the details of candidate-constituent links in different constituencies at different stages of the vote. Such linkages can be clientelistic, charismatic, or programmatic. They can be all three at the same time. If they’re purely clientelistic, then we shouldn’t moan and wail about it but try to understand the nature of the relationship. Far from evincing apathy, many Egyptians seem exceptionally mobilised during election time, even if in purely clientelistic terms....

Election time offers opportunities for candidates to interact with and woo district residents. Vote-buying surely occurs, as preliminary accounts of the first round of voting are already making clear. But other ties are also possible. Residents may identify with an underdog or someone who stands up to rotten local bosses. Residents may be attracted by the appeal of a particular idea, e.g. “Islam is the Solution.” Residents may simply vote for one candidate to spite or protest against another. Even if candidates run entirely quixotic campaigns, they help ordinary Egyptians lay some claim to public politics, even if only fleetingly.
Elections are episodes when the tables are turned, if only for a spell. Even the most stalwart government kingpin relies on humble commoners to return him to the ranks of the plumed and powerful. In that exchange, so fraught with unexpected possibilities, commoners get a taste of their own importance. They have sometimes made choices between bad and less bad bosses, sometimes taken heroic stances in support of quixotic challengers, and sometimes aligned themselves with powerful incumbents. If this happens at least some of the time in some election districts every five years, then I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would describe this as "apathy."

Sounds to me like all politics is local.
Where have we heard that?

This woman has a mind like a steel trap.

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