Within a month, Algeria, Egypt and Syria held presidential elections. In all three cases, despite nominal challenges, the elections had only one candidate on the ballot: in Algeria it was Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Egypt it was the former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and in Syria it was the incumbent Bashar al-Assad. On the day of the Syrian election, Beirut’s al-Akhbar ran a headline that said, “Assad to be elected today.” No one expected any other result in any of these countries.
According to their national election commissions, their victories came with substantial margins — Mr. Bouteflika won 81 per cent of the votes, Sisi won 96 per cent and Assad 88 per cent. The European Union observer mission said the Egyptian vote was “democratic and free,” while Russia’s election committee mission said that the Syrian vote met “international standards commonly recognized.” Both these judgments beggar belief. Even if the voting stations seemed unprejudiced and if the ballot boxes were not tampered with, the election process raises serious doubts. The repression in Egypt, the war in Syria and the political suffocation in Algeria make conditions for an election impossible, with even nominal campaigning by challengers inconceivable. Besides, the scale of the victory comes with a whiff of the ridiculous.
Securing a mandate, not victory
To judge these political events as “elections” is to miss their character. They are less elections and more political rallies. More important than the result was the need to draw in large numbers of people to the polls — the measure of the referendum given by the people to their anointed leader. In Egypt, voters sluggishly came to the polls. This alarmed the Egyptian state, which added an extra day, extended the hours for voting, and offered free transportation to the voters. Enthusiasm had to be drummed up — television anchors in Egypt urged people to go to the ballot. Al-Masry Al-Youm carried a telling headline, “The State searches for a vote.”
Exhortations came from cultural icons, including from Emirati singer Hussein al-Jasmi’s “Boshret Kheir” (Good Omen), a take-off of Pharrell William’s “Happy”, asking: “What has Egypt gained from your silence? Don’t deny it your vote.” The point was not to secure a victory — which was inevitable — but to secure a mandate with a high turnout. Official sources said the turnout was a meagre 44 per cent, higher than the 30 per cent seen for Mubarak’s last election in 2005 but lower than the 51 per cent in the 2012 election of Mohammed Morsi. Sisi had raised expectations. He wanted at least 80 per cent of the electorate to anoint him. He did not get it — even by official figures that are open to manipulation.
In Algeria, the official turnout figures showed a slump in popularity for Le Pouvoir (The Power, as the regime is called). A section of the opposition called for a boycott of the poll. Half the population did not vote on April 17. This was double the figure of abstention since 2009. Bouteflika has ruled Algeria for 15 years and at 77 is seen as a figurehead for Le Pouvoir. Half a million military officers and troops had been stationed across the country to man the voting booths, hardly a magnet for popular enthusiasm. According to official figures, Bouteflika won four and a half million votes less than he did in 2004. Interior Minister Tayeb Belaiz said the low turnout does not indicate a lack of enthusiasm for Bouteflika or Le Pouvoir; it is part of a global trend. Voter turnout is low in many countries, but for reasons that are similar to Algeria — non-voters tell pollsters that they see no point in voting because either the elections are non-competitive or they see no distinction between the candidates. This is not cause for celebration, but introspection.
Syria’s turnout, according to its supreme constitutional court, was 73 per cent. The vote was held in government-controlled areas and in countries with the largest number of Syrian refugees (Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq). Syrian refugees in Europe, Turkey and the Gulf states were prevented from voting. It is likely that the turnout numbers are inflated, although in 2007 the turnout of registered voters was given at an unbelievable figure of 95 per cent. Numbers should not be taken for granted. Nevertheless, they are a mirror of reality or of a reality that is being presented to the viewer. In 2007, Assad won 97 per cent of the vote, namely 11 million votes. In 2014, after 2,00,000 dead and millions out of the government’s control, Assad won 10 million votes. That the government presented this as a result — whether accurate or not — is an indication that Assad recognizes he is weaker than he was seven years ago.
Algeria, Egypt and Syria are countries with great traditions of political debate in the cafes and living rooms. These are not quiescent societies. Yet, after the long Algerian Civil War (1988-2002), there is exhaustion for any kind of similar adventure. Algerian Workers’ Party leader Louisa Hanoune won half a million less votes in 2014 than in 2009. She conceded that her voters went to Bouteflika because they are “afraid of instability.” In Egypt, a combination of demoralization, exhaustion and lack of trust in the Nasserite politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran against Sisi, saw little public opposition to the vote. It was the silence of the majority that resounded across the country.
Vote for an end to the conflict
Syria was the outlier. The war continues, and in parts is brutal. The Kurdish areas in the north-east are firmly out of government control, and sections of the north are now the battleground between two branches of the al-Qaeda. In the strip that runs from Latakia to Damascus, government forces have established a measure of authority. In Lebanon, Syrians came to the Beirut embassy and crossed into Syria to vote in large numbers. A traffic jam on the road to the embassy in Yarzeh became an impromptu political rally, which was the purpose of the “election.” At the Masnaa border crossing from Lebanon to Syria, ordinary Syrians stood waiting to get their yellow cards allowing them to go to Syria for two days to vote. A small minority seemed most enthusiastic about Assad, similar numbers to those who held an anti-Assad demonstration in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. The majority seemed less interested in politics.
The fervor for the Syrian revolution brought in large numbers of people to politics — mundane lives became charged with the possibility of political change. The drawn-out conflict has thrown many of these people back into mundane dreams. “We want to go home,” says a woman in her twenties who stood with a group of friends. They had come to vote less for Assad and more for the end to the conflict. It was a sentiment shared by her friends and by many ordinary Syrians.
For ordinary people in Egypt or Syria, opposition to the Power did not give them any reason for hope. When Morsi took power in Egypt, there was no grand gesture to alleviate the everyday anxieties and sufferings of the people — no great subsidy for energy costs, no new policy to create jobs for the unemployed young people. Morsi’s great initiatives threatened to divide society along religious lines. It was not something that the Tahrir Square protests imagined. Sisi used that opening to thrust the military openly into power.
When the Syrian regime did not fall after the first few months of the uprising, it became clear that with absent U.S. intervention, a protracted war was in the offing. There was little concern from the Syrian opposition, largely in exile, for the wartime suffering authored by both the Assad government and the opposition. Neither oppositions to Sisi or Assad offer a believable pathway to power and justice. As the Egyptian and Syrian oppositions began to appear hapless or as undemocratic as their antecedents, faith in the future began to vanish. In Egypt, stasis is the order of the day; in Syria, on the other hand, the vote was a political rally for an end to the conflict.
Assad would be mistaken if he reads the election results as a validation of his rule. It would be far better to see this as a serious call for an end to the war, and for his government to reach out to the rebels on the ground toward rapprochement. It is what those who stood in lines in Beirut and at Masnaa sought — not a return to the status quo, but to the start of a new dialogue to rebuild a country destroyed by the brutality of war.
Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. This article was first published in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India.