Socializing with socialists

Why should the Cairo secular "jet set" vote for socialists? Because working class and poor voters have zero rational reason to vote for a capitalist laissez faire socially liberal agenda that offers them no improved government services. And whether they like it or not, the fact is that the jet set needs the working class voters if they were to ever have a chance of living in a secular state.

During the past presidential elections I was speaking to a friend of mine who was concerned that, if elected, Mohamed Morsy would crack down on drinking and impose restrictive dress codes at Egypt's beaches. He complained there was no one he could support. When I suggested Hamdeen Sabbahi he immediately rejected the idea out of hand because "Sabbahi is a socialist." This friend and many others I've spoken with who had similar feelings on the subject wanted a secular president but dismissed as untenable electing a president with a leftist agenda.

Forgive me for getting slightly technical but this is the short political science explanation for why this electoral goal doesn't work. Often when studying electoral blocs, political scientists divide them into what they describe as "cleavages," basically differing groups. So, for example, some voters could be described as socially conservative, which one would assume would push them to vote for a party like the Muslim Brotherhood. A wealthy socially liberal voter could be attracted to the Free Egyptians Party who advocate a capitalist and largely secular state. Now realistically, there aren't very many wealthy socially liberal voters in Egypt. 

When developing an effective electoral strategy you want to look for what political scientists call "cross-cutting cleavages." What that means is that one wants to search for conflicting cleavages that exist in a single type of voter and use one to depress the significance of the other. Realistically, every voter has a multidimensional identity with different political interests. So let's say our socially conservative voter is also a factory worker with children and a sick mother. That voter suddenly has a much richer pool of cleavages to work with. He is a laborer and will support workers' rights policies. He has children who benefit from improved education and his sick mother could use better health care. 

The Muslim Brotherhood is an avowedly free market capitalist party. So far Morsy's solutions to problems have been to call on individual citizens to pick up the trash (literally and figuratively) themselves. The Brotherhood's desire to have the private sector manage Egypt's problems might leave our socially conservative working class voter alienated and voting differently (assuming he can find a desirable alternative).

If another party of a democratic socialist variety could offer a moderately leftist agenda that increases taxes to finance better schools and hospitals while insisting workers are paid a livable wage it's very possible that our working class socially conservative voter could vote for this alternative party.

If that same party also calls for a civil state and promises not to nationalize businesses and property it could be an attractive option to our wealthy socially liberal voter who is willing to pay to help improve the state of the country in exchange for a political party that, for a reasonable cost, allows him to live his life the way he likes. 

Realistically, not a lot of working class voters will vote to ban bikinis at the expense of expanded educational and health care benefits. They will vote for their material interests as long as its clear to those voters that the alternative party can deliver on their material needs.

In other countries, capitalist parties try to deal with the cross-cutting cleavage problem by using radical religiosity. Parties like the American Republican Party who oppose public health care and seek to cut education funding attract poor and working class votes by emphasizing social issues like abortion and hatred of gays. The capitalist AKP in Turkey also mobilizes working class voters with a religious and socially conservative discourse. Rather than labeling the Freedom and Justice Party a religious party, which, if anything, may strengthen their standing, they should be labeled a capitalist party beholden to the interests of wealthy business owners and unwilling to offer effective government solutions to the problems that plague Egypt’s working class. The public response to a party being labeled as capitalist will be decidedly more negative than the public response to a party being labeled as religious.

In reality, electoral politics is mostly about who can most effectively convince the working class that they serve their political agenda, as the working class is the clear majority of virtually any population. Secularists can win in Egypt, but it's going to cost taxes channeled to provide services for the working class. A secularist capitalist party offers the working class next to nothing and should expect next to none of their votes.

Timothy Kaldas is a photographer and writer based in Cairo.

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