It looks like a typical election in Egypt. Barely a quarter of eligible voters turned out to cast a ballot. This is a country with an active civil society, but also one where the ruling party not only chooses its candidates for office, it chooses its opponents.
President Hosni Mubarak has governed Egypt for 29 years, and his regime is consistently rated one of the most authoritarian--though secular--in the region. Throughout his reign, the organization that has most successfully organized political opposition has been the Muslim Brotherhood. With deep community roots, eloquent and spiritual leaders, and perseverance, the Muslim Brotherhood has offered Egyptians something they can't have through the state: a social context for political deliberation.
Egypt is a country in which the state does little to provide public spaces for political conversations. The Brotherhood has gone through stages in which internal dissent is discouraged. But it is through unlicensed political parties such as the Brotherhood that people have had relatively open political conversations. In cafes and tea houses, people can only gather in small groups, so illegal political parties and social movements have been the primary means of political deliberation.
But Mubarak's real enemy is no longer the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a complex, fractured umbrella group, and the practice of faith and opposition to Mubarak may not be enough to hold it together much longer. There is also the Kefaya movement, a loosely organized network of cosmopolitan Nasserites, Islamists, and leftists, that has organized some successful protests but has lost some momentum.
Mubarak's real opponents are tech-savvy activists and wired civic groups.
In the last few years, the internet has become the primary incubator of democratic political conversation. The state has never had this role, and the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer the exclusive provider. Instead, civil society in Egypt has moved online, using the information infrastructure of digital media as the place for difficult political conversations about regime change, gender and political life, and transnational Islamic identity.
This infrastructure is beyond the reach of the state. The conventional authoritarian government can easily cut power off to television stations or restrict the supply of newsprint. But such governments cannot easily control digital networks when the servers that host political conversations are located overseas, and the internet service providers and mobile phone operators are privately held businesses.
But during this election, Egyptians learned that ruling elites aren't very interested in contributing to the the political conversations happening online. Research by the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam demonstrates that it is the unlicensed political parties that use digital media the most, building links to Egyptian bloggers and Western media more frequently than to the humble online resources of official political parties. The average Egyptian's diet of international news is the highest it has ever been. With Egypt's technology users fast increasing, their consumption of international news at an all-time high, and with one of the most sophisticated and independent blogospheres in the Middle East, what are the most meaningfully open sites of political conversation?
Perhaps the clearest signs that digital media has changed the dynamics of political communication in Egypt are in the awkward ways the regime has responded to tech-savvy activists. When Muhammad Khaled Said posted an online video incriminating the police in a drug deal, he was beaten to death outside his internet café. Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, another Egyptian blogger, has just finished a four-year sentence for criticizing senior clerics and the government. Several bloggers have been arrested for blogging about detained bloggers.
But persecuting bloggers won't solve the country's biggest civic problem: absence of a sensible system for talking about politics.
The election results are due soon, but public demonstrations against the rigged election system have already begun. Egyptian politics has become a battle between networks and hierarchies. Mubarak and the National Democratic Party represent the classic hierarchy, attempting to maintain control of a large public sphere. The new style of political mobilization in Egypt, however, is networked and digital. Tuesday won't bring much change in government. The way people talk politics has changed.
Elections, even rigged ones, are sensitive moments for regimes. This time, because of digital media, the international community can see what is going on and so much more abuse is documented. Most importantly, more and more Egyptians are finding social context and a sensible system for talking about politics, and they are finding it online.