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Since the first round of the presidential election ended, there has been much talk about the emergence of a third bloc of voters, distinct from the bloc of supporters of the ailing regime on the one hand and from that of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Discussions about the third bloc have been characterized by a high level of optimism after around 40 percent of Egypt’s eligible voters opted for revolutionary candidates in the first round of the vote.
But there is a need for caution before celebrating this third bloc, for neither is this bloc a guaranteed asset for the revolution, nor is the current decline of the Brotherhood and the old regime necessarily an irreversible one. In addition, the excessive breadth and fragmentation of this bloc could also be a curse for the future of the revolution.
In order to validate these claims, the third bloc phenomenon shall be situated in the general context of the election and its ongoing interactions. The massive vote against the Brotherhood, the oldest Islamic group in the Muslim world, and Ahmed Shafiq, who is backed by an equally old and entrenched network of interests and institutions, can be seen as symptomatic of the total failure of the two projects in achieving popularity that surpasses their defined bases of adherents. Differently put, they have both failed to present “hegemony projects” capable of articulating diverse interests, demands and cultural sensitivities of the majority of the Egyptians.
Both the Brotherhood and Shafiq are reproducing the logic of the former regime, which perceives the question of rule as too critical to be left to the public. Both are envisioning different versions of the same 1952 regime with its defining characteristics: a web of security bodies that overshadows other state institutions and a small clique of non-elected confidants controlling a restricted political arena supported by an amalgamation of ideological notions revolving around the central idea of “exception.” While Shafiq does not hide his plans to revive the police state, Khairat al-Shater and his entourage endeavor to directly inherit the former National Democratic Party monopoly over the key positions in the bureaucracy and security at the expense of any transparent political sphere.
As such, it is natural for both projects to fail since the condition of the success of for either requires the foreclosure of all political life. Furthermore, neither of the two has bothered to hide their authoritativeness under a veneer of populism, like ousted ultra-conservative presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail for instance did. Both candidates, particularly Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy, appeared to be distant from voters.
Therefore, the huge vote against the two can be described as a form of protest voting resulting from the lack of a comprehensive project that would fill the political vacuum that has existed since the 25 January revolution. In turn, the expression “third bloc" is inaccurate because it suggests a comparison between well-defined, competing projects that were rejected by a wide audience who embraced a third alternative. To the contrary, the Egyptian voters encountered “non-projects” that they could not grasp or identify with, so they rejected both altogether in the hope that the other candidates or competitors might say something meaningful in the future.
These protest voters selected Hamdeen Sabbahi, and to a lesser extent Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, to convey their message; Sabbahi having somewhat benefited from his relatively limited appearances in the media, his socialist-oriented discourse and the fact that he does not belong to one of the polarized camps in the election.
We are therefore faced with a bloc of dissonant social and cultural elements who share nothing but their rejection of the existing vacuum and the loose projects presented. For example, there are the upper middle classes, including a sizable Coptic element, who voted for Sabbahi to safeguard the “civilian” character of the state. On the other hand, there are the lower strata of the non-Cairene middle classes as well as the poor masses in the rural Delta that chose Sabbahi to express their frustration with the whole transitional period — a prolonged transition that did not lead any tangible improvement in their living conditions. In fact, I believe the bigger part of this bloc is inclined to favor Shafiq in the runoffs since the Brotherhood have not managed to address any of their concerns and frustrations. In the end, Shafiq belongs to the state to which these people are accustomed.
Is this a call for pessimism? Of course not. That rejection is a positive development in itself. This is the first time that major segments of the electorate have cast its votes voluntarily and freely without being mobilized through rigid organizational channels, familial bonds or patronage networks. These voters are the key to rule in Egypt even if they have not expressed what they want in clear terms.
The Brotherhood's usual electoral tactics that favors negotiations behind the closed doors and direct mobilization have failed to generate the needed majority and there is currently no alternative to directly addressing people through a clear-cut project. Striking deals with Salafis, working to issue certain fatwas, and making reassurances to the US and the capitalist networks in the region will not lead to the presidency. That very failure is a positive indicator that demonstrates that there will be restraints on tyranny in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the articulation of a project that represents this bloc is not achievable in the near future, which could revitalize the authoritarian options if a strong leader with a populist discourse emerges. This brings to mind the phenomenon of Abu Ismail, particularly since several of the third bloc voters originally wanted him.
But what about the short term? Can either of Shafiq or Morsy find support for them within this incongruous bloc or at least rise back to their feet following their poor performance in the first round?
Let us first agree that Shafiq and his networks do not have a project for the future. Shafiq will come to resuscitate the 1952 state, which will prove extremely difficult unless he adopts a radical populist solution as I tried to explain, which is highly unlikely.
The Brotherhood has a better chance, provided they are able to present a more inclusive project, which largely depends on their ability to dismantle their rigid/semi-secret organizational structure.
The problem is that the Brotherhood is composed of a highly complicated network of direct financial interests and a Salafi-influenced ideological current that is extremely difficult to dismantle. Projects presented by Abouel Fotouh or other dissidents may be better capable of attracting sectors from this third bloc.
In general, it appears that powers which call themselves civilian — including Islamist parties that are more open and democratic — have an opportunity to advance, provided that they understand that for their motto of the “civilian state” to have any meaning they need to invest it with economic and social visions, which Egyptians have shown that a thirst for. Strategically, the articulation of this vision into a deep-rooted democratic current is the responsibility of all organized civic forces in the society, including parties, labor movements, artistic groups and democratic civil society organizations. If these groups fail to do so, their slogan will turn into a joke and then a point of populist attack.
Amr Abdulrahman is a PhD candidate at Essex University in the UK.
An Arabic version of this article first appeared in Akhbar Al-Adab and is translated by Dina Zafer.