Will Egypt's Activists Boycott the Election?

Egyptian activist groups have called for another "million man march" on Friday, September 9 in an attempt to "correct the course" and to revive what they see as a flailing revolution.  Friday is shaping up as a significant test of the continuing power of the activist groups after a summer where they have struggled. The exuberantly successful mass demonstration of July 8 gave way to an unpopular Tahrir sit-in and a disastrous attempt to march on the Ministry of Defense.  Recent calls for protests have produced small turnouts. Friday is therefore being widely taken as a test of the continuing relevance and power of the activists. 

But in some ways the turnout on Friday is a sideshow compared to the decisions to be made about the upcoming Parliamentary elections now scheduled for November.  It's no secret that many activists are deeply disenchanted with the SCAF-led political process.  They see street protests as the source of their power, and understand their identity as the "soul of the revolution." They have done little to prepare for elections and don't look likely to win.  Some view the coming elections as themselves counter-revolutionary since they will likely produce a Parliament dominated by Islamists and ex-NDP fulul.  When I was in Egypt in July, I already began hearing whispers that activists might boycott the elections.  Those are now spilling out into public.

Will activists actually boycott?  What would happen if they did? I think that it is distressingly likely, and growing more so, and that it would be a disaster. An activist boycott probably would not be joined by the major political parties, and probably wouldn't affect the overall turnout or results. But it would have a disproportionate impact on the  perceptions of the legitimacy of the election, especially in the West, and would seriously  undermine hopes of achieving a democratic Egypt. I am putting this out here now mainly to draw attention to the risks, provoke some public discussion... and, hopefully, to be proven wrong. 

Most activists are deeply and vocally disenchanted with the course of post-Mubarak Egypt. They complain bitterly about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, most potently about the use of military trials for protestors and their own harsh treatment at the hands of security forces. There's a lot of evidence that they have lost support from the wider public in recent months. They have nevertheless scored notable successes through actual or threatened street protests, on everything from the Shafik government to the SCAF's dramatic reversal on the question of Supra-Constitutional principles, especially when they seem to command widespread popular support. 

Friday's protest seeks to recreate the success of the July 8 protest, which rallied many Egyptians behind a growing sense of frustration, recaptured the spirit of the early days of the revolution, and put real pressure on the SCAF. But that high point soon faded in the controversies over the Tahrir sit-in, the violence at Abassiya, the Islamist July 29 counter-demonstration, the pre-Ramadan clearing of Tahrir, and a nasty SCAF-led campaign against their alleged foreign funding.  When I was in Cairo in late July, I struggled to find anybody with positive things to say about the Tahrir sit-in, and found deep frustration across the political spectrum with the activists. The September 9 "course correction" rally hopes to recapture the magic of July 8.

We will see on Friday whether the groups which have endorsed the demonstration succeed in bringing large numbers out to Tahrir or in driving the SCAF to offer political concessions.  Despite all of their struggles, they might. There's certainly plenty of frustration, serious labor unrest, dismay with the SCAF's erratic decision making, and fears of rising Islamist power.  That anger may well trump the popular disenchantment after the Tahrir sit-in and the nasty official campaign against foreign funding being used to tarnish their image. The Muslim Brotherhood and most other Islamist groups have announced that they will stay away this time, unlike in May, setting up a competitive dynamic which could galvanize participation by their opponents.  Either way, the turnout and the SCAF's response will dominate Egyptian political discourse and shape the perceived balance of power for the next few weeks.   

While there are a lot of different demands in circulation, the seven demands presented by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition seem representative. They largely avoid questions of religion and the constitution. Three focus on issues which only really speak to the protestors themselves:  ending military trials for protestors, abolishing "repressive" laws outlawing protests and demonstrations, and cracking down on the baltagiya (thugs) who harass protestors. As intensely as such issues are felt by the activists, it isn't clear to me that most ordinary Egyptians care. Another calls to banish NDP leaders from political life, which is understandable from a revolutionary perspective but rather undemocratic.  And then there's a demand for minimum and maximum wages which many Egyptians likely do find appealing but sits awkwardly and alone amidst the other six non-economic demands.

There's a real and troubling tension between the two demands which address elections. One demand calls for the SCAF to rapidly hand over power to an elected civil government. Another calls for a completely new elections law, which makes sense given the oddities of the current law although perhaps is premature given that the new election law hasn't yet been issued.  But the two demands contradict each other. A timetable for a rapid return to civilian rule through elections should be a top priority; it also seems to be exactly what the SCAF is doing, to the point of rejecting repeated calls from the West and from some Egyptians to postpone elections to give secular and liberal forces more time to organize. Devising a new election law, on the other hand, would take time and would almost certainly require postponing the elections currently scheduled for November. Like the earlier activist campaign for "Constitution First," the effect of this demand would be to extend rather than end the rule of the SCAF. 

That ambiguity goes to the heart of the potential for an activist boycott.  The idea of an election boycott began to rise as the realization set in that they won't win elections just through claims of revolutionary legitimacy.  It is not clear that they believe that successful elections would serve their interests, advance the revolution, or fit their identity. The kind of Parliament likely to be returned by the coming elections, even if completely free and fair, will likely involve heavy representation for Islamists and ex-NDP remnants (the fulul).  Would participating in such an election only grant legitimacy on a system which does not deserve it?

Each leak about the upcoming election law generates outrage over rules which allegedly favor Islamists or established parties.  That said, whatever law is ultimately adopted, few activists seem to have done much to prepare for the elections. I'm not sure why, but I haven't heard much about their equivalent of the Islamists out all over the country distributing food and holding public events and organizing for the vote.  Maybe they don't have the money, maybe they don't see the point, maybe they mean to do it but haven't found the time, or maybe they just don't see elections as the right way to assert themselves in today's Egypt.    

Revolutionaries are not necessarily democrats, despite the generic label of "democracy activist" preferred by the American media. Many of them simply prefer street action to institutional politics. It's not just what they do, it's who they are.  Protestors protest.  It's much more exciting than preparing draft laws for consideration in committee meetings. Many of the Tahrir activists view themselves as the soul of the revolution, standing above politics.   Maybe they feel that joining in the elections could implicate them in a system which remains counter-revolutionary at its core and take away their ability to mobilize the streets. They have seen, over the course of a decade and especially from January 25 through this summer, that street politics works.  Would a small Parliamentary bloc really compensate for the loss of the Tahrir gambit?

So there's all kinds of reasons that they might choose to boycott. But it would be a disaster if they did, for themselves as well as for Egypt.  If they seek to deprive the election of legitimacy, their prominence in the media will ensure that the international narrative will become one of failed revolution.  That will hurt Egypt both at home and abroad.  It will keep Egypt locked in political crisis, and make it much more difficult to forge a broad consensus on a new constitution and to establish enduring democratic principles.  It will weaken international support for the new Egypt, and sour potential investors and tourists on its prospects.  It will also hurt them by putting them outside of the newly emerging institutions and less able to influence the shape of the new constitution or vital new legislation. 

In short, an election boycott would be a disaster. But they might not see it that way for the reasons outlined above -- especially if they see the elections consolidating a new system which doesn't live up to their hopes for the revolution, or have an appropriate place for them.  Precisely because others see it as more disastrous than they do, threatening a boycott will look like an attractive option for pressuring the SCAF. Once those threats are made they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy as groups are trapped by their rhetoric.

That's why I'm bringing it up now -- to try to pre-empt that process by opening debate on it now.  In other words, I'm putting the potential for activist groups to threaten or to actually boycott the elections on the radar.. in hopes that it won't happen. So let's go prove me wrong! 

UPDATE: I have "Storified" some of the unfolding Twitter debate about this post here - check it out, and chime in!

Marc Lynch

Jay-Z's Hegemony in the Age of Kanye

"I seen people abuse power, use power, misuse and then lose power/Power to the people at last, it’s a new hour/Now we all ain’t gon’ be American Idols/But you can least grab a camera, shoot a viral/Huh? Take the power in your own hands." 

--- Kanye West, evaluating (presumably) the Egyptian revolution in the Power remix 

Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West may not prove to be the enduring hip hop classic that many people expected when news of the project leaked. But the album itself is hardly the point. Watch the Throne represents a fascinating gambit in the consolidation and extension of Jay-Z's hegemony over the hip hop world, and in Kanye's rehabilitation of his image following a catastrophic collapse in his global standing. How they did it offers important lessons for how the United States can handle its own changing position within a turbulent world.

Two years ago, I wrote a series of essays using Jay-Z as a window into international relations theory. They ended up provoking an astonishing outpour of debate, dissent, and commentary across the blogosphere. I recorded what remains to this day my all-time favorite radio appearance. And it landed me in an unforgettable, if short-lived, rap beef with Game himself. My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.

Blueprint 3, released shortly afterward, largely vindicated that analysis. The opening track pointedly dismissed his beefs ("I ain't talking about gossip, ain't talking about Game") in favor of addressing "real" issues ("let's talk about the future, we've just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther, you could choose ta sit in front of your computer posing with guns, shooting YouTube up, or you could come with me to the White House"). "Run This Town" asked everyone to "pledge allegiance" to his label Roc Nation. "Already Home," breezily dismissed all of his would-be challengers as not in his league and "only excited when they mentioning Shawn" and taking them to task for not carrying their share of the burden ("I taught 'em about fish scale they want me to fish for them/They want me to catch clean, then cook up a dish for them"). D.O.A. did take the rising generation to task for singing too much with Auto-Tune and generally being soft, and took a few shots at competing power centers ("send this one to the mixtape Weezy"). But overall, the album was a self-confident, knowing blueprint for hegemonic restraint.

The structure of the balance of power in the rap world continued to evolve towards multipolarity over the last two years, if not an actual hegemonic transition, in the midst of a serious financial crisis afflicting the entire industry -- a situation not unfamiliar to the White House. The relentless rise of southern rap mirrors the economic and political rise of Asia. What had once been a marginal, derivative, and largely dismissed regional genre has risen to be a legitimate contender for hegemony. Lil Wayne and his Young Money label racked up success after success alongside older southern powers like T.I. and newcomers like B.o.B. The West Coast, like Europe, has declined significantly since its old great power days. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg still do their thing, but rarely have a major impact anymore (RIP Nate Dogg, by the way); Detox remains an urban legend, and we'll see if Game's new RED album does better. 50 Cent, a great power only a few years ago, has largely collapsed -- Russia, perhaps? Eminem returned strong after a long struggle with depression to make the ferociously brilliant Recovery album; but like, say, India or Brazil he has always been a powerhouse in his own world, neither influencing nor affected by the wider field.

In short, the environment facing Jay-Z over the last two years was turbulent and challenging, and he could not simply assume continued hegemony despite his track record or skills. Rap's center of gravity was being pulled relentlessly away from its New York roots, taking on a more southern and more international feel. The entire industry faced a massive financial crisis, as the internet and market fragmentation continued to contribute to the steady collapse of the business model for albums and record companies. What is more, there was every reason to view Jay-Z himself as a declining power. While a Jay-Z album could still dominate the rap space as completely as the U.S. military could dominate any global battlespace, that dominance rested on deteriorating foundations. Jay-Z should have seen his skills declining at the age of 41 (yeah, he's 10 months younger than me - and for what it's worth I think his rhymes are better than ever). He could hardly avoid being distracted by the competing pulls of running Def Jam or Roc Nation, and the comforts of marriage to the divine Beyoncé.

Watch the Throne then can be seen as a shrewd move to institutionalize Jay-Z's hegemony before feeling the effects of likely decline in a rapidly shifting and potentially hostile environment, through more robust partnerships and a fully-realized new alliance system. The key moves came years earlier: Jay-Z allowing Kanye to produce Blueprint 3 instead of trying to destroy him after his 2007 diss track "Big Brother"; his signing of key rising stars to Roc Nation and Kanye's doing the same at GOOD Music (especially reaching beyond his comfort zone to bring the incredible Pusha T on board after the breakup of the Clipse -- Turkey, perhaps, given the religion issue?); his participation on Kanye's brilliant GOOD Friday series of free online downloads and on Kanye's remarkable comeback album My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy; and then finally Watch the Throne.

It's actually hard to say, and ultimately may not matter, whether Jay-Z or Kanye West is the architect of this new alliance. Kanye had become a lightning rod for political attacks after his post-Katrina outburst during a live telethon that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," and then had struggled with his mother's death. Kanye's reputation had been shattered in September 2009 by his drunken display at the Video Music Awards where he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech to declare that the award should have gone to Beyoncé instead. "Imma let you finish" became a national punch line and he suffered massive ridicule even on South Park. There have been few public gaffes of such magnitude in the entertainment world, and amidst much whispering about his alleged drinking problems and erratic personality many doubted whether Kanye could ever recover. This was a reputational collapse on a par with what the Bush administration did to America's standing in the world. (How ironic, then, that Bush described Kanye's Katrina outburst as the lowest moment of his Presidency.)

How Kanye brought himself back to the top has some intriguing lessons for public diplomacy. He didn't rely on one big speech to apologize, try to respond to every critic, or retreat into a shell. As someone who thinks that internet has a transformative impact on world politics, I find it fitting that Kanye's return from his lowest days relied on innovative internet activism (paging Alec Ross). I'm referring partly to Kanye's hallucinogenic Twitter feed and online video interviews, but mainly to the GOOD Friday series of free music releases. It should be no surprise that he turned to the internet to seize control of his own image. The hip hop industry has been transformed by the internet, obviously. Unauthorized leaks have wiped out album sales, while most of the new generation of young rappers have built their careers on free mixtapes released online -- it's hard to believe that J.Cole, for instance, is practically a hip hop legend already without yet even releasing his first studio album.

Even in that context, it is almost impossible to exaggerate how good the GOOD Friday releases were. For months, Kanye release a world-class new track free over the internet every Friday. The Good Friday releases featured a wide range of artists, casting a big tent which signaled broad global support. They featured Jay-Z himself, signaling support from the top of the system. They showcased the prize acquisition for Kanye's GOOD label, the lyrical monster Pusha T, signaling a strong new alliance. They featured hot young artists such as J. Cole, Big Sean, and Cyhi Da Prince, socializing the best of the new generation of rising powers into their alliance system rather than fading away or jealously circling the wagons. And by giving it away free over months, they generated buzz and had far more impact than if they had just released it in one album. Like Warren Ellis with his amazing online comic book Freakangels, Kanye proved that giving top quality material away for free could actually be good business (a lesson, by the way, for academics and their publishers). By the time the albums came out, Kanye's misdeeds had faded in the collective memory in favor of the immense goodwill generated through this exceptional feat of public diplomacy.

Jay-Z and Kanye therefore solidified their place on the throne not by crushing their rivals but by inspiring them to be their best as part of a team, through creative use of the internet for public diplomacy, and by working within rather than trying to dictate new norms. They recognized that "no one man should have all that power." Jay-Z was willing to "lead from behind" and share the spotlight in order to build a broad and effective coalition. This approach to leadership encouraged others to step up and share the burden, even when he could have easily dominated on his own. Like the U.S. did for NATO in Libya, he and Kanye contributed unique assets (the ability to command public attention, tracks from the best producers like Swizz Beatz and Pete Rock, their own skills). And it worked. Potential competitors clamored to get in to this new order rather than bashing it from afar, while the attractiveness of the partnership pushed those invited to join to step up their game and perform at their peak.

Jay-Z also demonstrated the maturity and self-confidence to avoid demanding credit or singling out weaker players for abuse. Sure, he continues to send out warnings to smaller powers, but he is usually careful not to name names and to keep his messages broad. He complains "I'm just so offended, how am I even mentioned by all these f***ing beginners", but he concludes not with a threat but with a weary shake of the head: "all these little bi***es, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges... f***ing ridiculous." It's not his fault if they destroy themselves -- like Obama eyeing Qaddafi, Mubarak or Assad, it's really up to them to decide whether they will choose their next steps poorly. And he loves to flaunt his wealth and status -- indeed, such displays are part of how he signals his hegemonic standing. But if "planking on a million" can be humble, then this is a strategy of humility.

Watch the Throne therefore should not be judged as an album, but rather as a move in this savvy strategy of institutionalizing hegemony in the face of potential decline. Kanye and Jay-Z's alliance offers a new blueprint for managing decline in a turbulent world from which international relations scholars and American foreign policy practitioners alike should learn. And if political scientists don't want to take lessons from hip hop artists, then allow me to give the last word to Cyhi Da Prince: "my haters got PhDs, y'all just some major haters with some math minors."

Addendum and Commentary:

- Spencer Ackerman warns that we should not just watch the throne, but instead keep an eye on the rising power of the periphery.

- Lil Wayne goes directly at Jay-Z - how should the Jay-Z/Kanye alliance deal with a challenge from a serious peer competitor?

- Game renews attack with "Uncle Otis" - did Jay-Z's restraint embolden challenger because of absence of consequences for defiance?