Monday, December 12, 2011

Between Slaughter and Elections

A harrowing picture to add to the most memorable about 2011: a lone girl standing over a pile of death, some faces barely in their teens; some still in babyhood. The contortions of anguish, you think, as she registers the horrific sight that engulfs her. A family gone, perhaps; a life, hers, theirs, ended by unfathomable, unfathomable, you keep repeating to yourself, cruelty and madness.

You stare and then you click, desperate to leave her, because the moment is you at your most ridiculous.

Not that the murderers in Afghanistan who harvested 63 Shiite souls last Tuesday had it in mind, but the picture of a people dying there while another in Egypt were rambunctiously voting is sort of apt: a juxtaposition of yearnings, one for a nightmarish kind of silence, the other for a less painful existence; two orgies, of death and of life; a clean break between future and past…you pray.

I wonder if I am reading too much into these two events, drawing a line between them that’s not there, or even scrubbing out of them the messy realities that bind trauma to joy in this embattled region.  

In any case, it is early days yet. “Spring” is barely behind us, and already elections are being oversold as good behavior certificates. That’s the thing about elections: they’re so damned convenient. They could be the most visible manifestation of a people’s will or the easiest forgeries of it; they’re the quickest fix for revolution, or war, or peace…when it starts itching for tangible yields.  

And the yield in Egypt, as disheartening as it seems to many, is nothing short of enlightening. You’re too quick to the trigger if you think I am about to marvel at the Islamists’ win. As surprising as it is to those who must have been living on Mars for the past few decades, it is in fact the least interesting revelation about Egypt’s mood and our reactions to it.  

By way of the obligatory preface, let me stress that the motive here is not to debunk the ballot’s judgment in this first round, however imperfect the performance has been: the disorganization, the tricks, the miles-long lines, the money flooding in from some friendly folks in the area looking to elbow their way of life in... It is almost impossible to measure this imperfection’s impact on the final tally, although there is much benefit to the public good in harping loudly and frequently about the point.

And, yes, much can be (and has already been) said against a bizarre electoral process that defies—because, of course, it means to—all sense. In this, the Egyptians are not alone, although they do stand at the extreme end of electoral systems that insist on convoluted interpretations of the people’s intent.

But such are the current rules of this Egyptian game, such are its weaknesses and such is the upshot: the Islamists, combined, are almost sure to enjoy more than 60 percent of the vote and constitute the majority in parliament.

This is not, however, where I really want to go. The elections in Egypt are only a small part of a much bigger, still blank canvas of change. What they draw for us are just a few pieces of the final picture. It’s the trends that dance around them that are worth a lingering thought.  

And one very clear thought for the jubilant and the defeated is that victory should never beget silence—not when the soul of a nation is being negotiated between its people. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about these times and nothing ordinary about the winds that have converged to rid us of a certain way of politics and life. Even when we ought to nod to the ballot’s verdict, there is no tyranny that should attach itself to the fundamentals that will govern the space to which we all need to belong. Otherwise, elections become little more than shortcuts to dictatorship, the most dangerous chinks in the democratic edifice they are meant to protect.

In my last post about Arab Women and Revolution, a few of Islamism’s fans insisted that this is the time to let the winning side show its stuff in quietude. But consensus is never born in silence, it emerges only when the discussion remains vibrant. Track records, ideology, convictions, hope, indeed skepticism, have a role to play in plotting the future’s trajectory, because the future is for everybody, winners and losers alike. Otherwise, let your eyes never leave that lone woman.

Here’s another thought, for what it’s worth: In this first round, voter turnout stood at 52 percent, of which the Muslim Brothers’ party list won around 37 percent, the Salafists' 24 percent. Almost half of eligible voters in these districts did not vote. That leaves the MB and the Salafists with 31 percent (19 and 12 percent, respectively) of the entire spectrum of voters—respectable by any standard but nowhere near enough to put a halt to the country’s momentous discourse.