—Illustration by Abro

There is disappointment among many young Egyptians who took part in the movement that toppled the autocratic government of Hosni Mubarak. The cause of this disappointment is the impressive electoral showing of both the moderate as well as hardcore Islamist parties in the recently concluded parliamentary election (the first of its kind in that country).

The same transpired in the recent election in Tunisia as well, the country from where the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ sprung up triggering a series of democratic movements in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. But I do wonder exactly what the young Tunisians and Egyptians who gathered in their thousands to agitate and send their respective autocrats packing were expecting from their revolutions? Clearly many weren’t aware of the history of such movements that suggests that ideological uprisings that result in democracy hardly ever facilitates the voting in of the ideologues of the movement. Instead, after the turmoil, people are more likely to vote for stability. Such has been the case in the history of protest movements even in developed democratic countries, where potent protests and uprisings (usually against scruffy and corrupt systems), have seen those parties that were attacked the most being voted back into power. This is one of the main reasons why many revolutions decided to spring up new ruling elites and dictatorships instead of legitimising their revolutionary successes through an electoral process. Maybe history taught them that their ideological successes in the streets could not be transformed into an electoral victory, mainly due to the practical and circumspective nature of the electorate that usually votes for economic and social stability rather than a continuation of ‘revolutionary turmoil’. Of course, one did not expect young Egyptians or Tunisians (who’d envisioned the dawn of some enlightened era of secular Arab democracy) to be well versed in the theoretical and historical trends regarding democratic movements and their outcomes. But examples are always there to see and learn from.

Two examples worthy of a deeper study by those disappointed by the election results in Egypt and Tunisia are the radical uprisings in France and the United States in the late 1960s. In May 1968, a left-wing student uprising against the conservative government of Charles de Gaulle was soon joined by both blue and white collar unions and also managed to attract the sympathy of the middle-class. The uprising and the strikes that it triggered were so intense that de Gaulle, a war hero and president, resigned, calling for new elections.

The result: Reeling from days of protests and strikes, the electorate gave a thumping victory to the candidate of the pro-de Gaulle party that (along with allies) won a crushing 57 per cent of the total vote. Furthermore, in the 1969 presidential elections, it was again the candidate of the Gaullist party that swept aside his main leftist opponent.

So what happened? The boisterous hue and cry heard in the streets, campuses, factories and the media did not transform into votes as the voters settled for stability that they felt only mainstream parties could guarantee. The rebels had great slogans, but it was the conventional parties that actually had an economic and political plan.

What gets missed is the fact that (ever since the mid-20th century), populist political movements are not exactly political in nature; they are more social in context. That’s why, and as can be seen in the rebellious uprisings by the youth in the West in the 1960s, the impact of such movements was more social and cultural than political. The intense leftist student turmoil of the 1960s in the US for example, impacted the country’s sociological and cultural aspects more than its political structures.

The youth uprisings failed to put America’s two mainstream parties in the dock. As a matter of fact, the loud movements there when taken to the electorate saw the election of a conservative, Richard Nixon (Republican Party) in 1968 and then again in 1972 (in a landslide). The promise of returning to stability through mainstream parties overwhelmed the movements’ more revolutionary posturing at the polls.

Even in Iran when after a popular Islamic revolution toppled a despotic monarch in 1979, the first election held under the Islamic revolutionary regime (in 1980) did not usher in a tsunami of votes for the revolutionaries. For example, in the legislative elections the revolution’s ‘official party’ won 130 of the total 270 seats whereas the collective seats of parties opposed to the revolutionary maneuvers of the Islamists also managed to gather 130 seats (120 to liberal democrats and 10 to Marxists).

What’s more in the same year’s presidential election, it was the liberal/moderate, Abolhasan Banisadr, who bagged a whooping 76.5 per cent of the vote compared to the pro-revolution Islamist candidate who could only muster 4.8 per cent. Promise of post-revolution stability outweighed revolutionary turmoil in the elections. So much so that alarmed by the results, Iran’s revolutionary elite (within a year) impeached Banisadr (for opposing the ‘revolution’s principals’ and being ‘soft on pro-West liberals and communists’). Movements attempting to cleanse so-called corrupt systems and challenge the ‘hegemony’ of established democratic parties or of undemocratic despots must learn how to evolve their boisterous and defiant ways from being street-and-media-savvy heroism to becoming circumspect, organised and practical harbingers of economic and social stability because that is what is on a majority of the voters’ minds on election day. Revolution thrives in the streets (and now social media), but it is stability and a practical programme outlining the modus-operandi of achieving this stability that carries the ballot.

And those concerned about the Islamists’ victory in Tunisia and Egypt should actually be respecting the people’s democratic mandate, no matter how ‘disappointing’ it is. Real revolutions come through the vote. They make more sense.

Opinion

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