Amidst all the clamor about the results of Egypt’s first round of presidential elections, the supposed threat it poses to the future of democracy, to the revolution itself, even to the world, an elementary fact is worth mentioning again: the elections took place. The end of the transitional period and military rule is within sight. Egyptians voted enthusiastically; their vote was counted fairly; they expect to vote again; they expect their vote to count, again; as expressed by Muhammad Mursi to reassure his opponents, a new reality is being born in which Egypt can no longer be ruled by any single force. The country has become too complicated for that. Its revolution has passed another test and succeeded, for now. So why the gloom?

Let us review, first, the simple arithmetic; second, the principles of the game.

First, the revolutionary forces clearly and soundly won the presidential election’s first round. Assuming that the core of the revolutionary camp is represented by third and fourth place finishers, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdul-Mun’em Abu al-Futuh, these two candidates together obtained about 40% of the votes, more than any other single candidate. If we add the votes for Amr Musa, who also speaks the revolution’s language (albeit from the point of view of an opposition statesman), then the revolutionary forces garnered more than half of first round votes. If we consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be part of the revolution, which it is, and, on this basis, add the votes received by its candidate, Muhammad Mursi, to the above calculations, then the final revolutionary tally would be more than three quarters of all ballots cast.

By contrast, the old regime received less than one quarter of votes. In the acrimonies leading up to the second round of voting on June 16-17, 2012, this simple fact – that the revolutionary forces won the election so decisively – has been forgotten, as if inconsequential. Many adherents of the revolutionary camp want to boycott the second round altogether; others want to invalidate the elections, believing the choice between run-off candidates, Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, to be  unpalatable: Mursi, because of the apparent risks he presents for the rise of an Islamic dictatorship in Egypt, and Shafiq, for his connection to Mubarak and potential to restore the old regime.

Caught Between Two Unpalatable Choices

There is a second calculation that may seem, at first, to give even more credence to the calls for a boycott: ironically, the two second-round finalists appear to be the least popular of all presidential candidates. This may sound strange but, in fact, is easy to understand, if we imagine other possible combinations of run-off finalists. If Shafiq were facing anyone other than Mursi in the second round, the entire revolutionary camp would have quickly lined up behind Shafiq’s opponent. If Mursi was going up against anyone but Shafiq, the revolutionary camp, again, would quickly coalesce behind Mursi’s opponent (except perhaps the Salafis, but this would be counter-balanced by the anti-Mursi candidate likely receiving added support from a substantial portion of Shafiq supporters, many of whom worry about an Islamist takeover). In other words, both Mursi and Shafiq would have easily lost in the second round if they had faced the third, fourth, or even fifth place candidate of the first round.  This is why the first round results have been so disheartening for many revolutionaries, because in one way or another they are aware of this arithmetic, and reject the alternatives that now confront them.

Understanding the Game

Now, for the principles of the game: first and foremost, the forces of the revolution must win the second round. The old regime cannot be allowed back in, as otherwise, it would be as if the revolution had never happened. We would face a restoration of the old regime through new faces and personalities. In return, the whole idea of the revolution would become delegitimized, making it unlikely that the populace would be willing to risk another revolution, so obviously fruitless, to undo the restoration of the old regime.

There are two ways to avoid this horrendous prospect: one is in the hands of the people, another is in the hands of the judiciary. The first solution requires supporting Mursi. No matter what doubts it may have about the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy, the rest of the revolutionary camp decides in this case to join the Brothers’ coalition, and hopes for better luck with the next elections. The Brothers, after all, were part of the revolution, and, as such, will likely undergo the sorts of transformations, ideological or otherwise, that one expects of any popular force experimenting for the first time with governing a complex and large society, whose problems cannot be solved by simple slogans. In addition, the Brothers represent a legitimate, strong and well-rooted force in Egyptian society, with an overall approach that is closest in spirit to the traditional, conservative sentiments prevailing in Egypt. The important task right now is to create the basis for a political theater that will eventually allow for the effective participation of all social forces operating in the country. Only Mursi, who was part of the revolution and is a product of it, can facilitate that project. The other candidate, Shafiq, will unquestionably undermine it.

Although arising from the people’s revolution, the second alternative rests primarily in the hands of the judiciary and involves using the principle of “revolutionary legitimacy” as a supreme legal basis for excluding Shafiq from the second round. Under this principle, the revolution has invalidated all existing constitutions and replaced them–at least temporarily–with the will of the people.

Applying the principle would likely require repeating the first-round of elections, with an entirely revolutionary configuration that excludes the revolution’s enemies. However, just yesterday, Egypt’s highest court declared unconstitutional the “political isolation” law, which was passed by parliament to disqualify the highest-ranking members of the old regime, like Shafiq, from participating in politics. Under the principle of revolutionary legitimacy, the law would still be valid, as the people’s will, not the constitution, would govern during a period of revolutionary transition.

Because the Egyptian revolution did not establish a revolutionary court system, application of this principles if left to the country’s existing judiciary, creating significant challenges to the success of this legal strategy. Overall, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have operated within a formal “constitutional” framework–meaning that there has always been some written constitution (or at least constitutional declaration) that regulated the transitional periods. Such periods were not, therefore, ruled by the alternative principle of “revolutionary legitimacy.” The principle of revolutionary legitimacy means that rules are valid if they are important for the success of the revolution, even if they do not adhere to an existing constitution or are not legally codified. As such, revolutionary legitimacy is typically “unconstitutional.”

Revolutions are themselves unconstitutional and cannot, therefore, be subject to constitutional requirements. Rather, they operate under their own principles of legality. As such, from the perspective of revolutionary legitimacy, the political isolation law, which is unconstitutional but necessary for the revolution, is valid even if it completely contradicts all constitutional requirements.

Towards Revolutionary Unity(?)

The disunity among the revolutionary forces, however, makes it unlikely that revolutionary legitimacy can be a useful tool. A successful, broadly acceptable campaign for revolutionary legitimacy requires a unified will. Without this unity, blind insistence on revolutionary legitimacy may easily morph into an unacceptable demand for the minority to impose its will on the majority. With this route blocked, we return to our first strategy: support for Mursi, the revolution’s remaining candidate.

Revolutions do not end with elections. They are long cultural processes that over many years transform and open up the political theater to a broad variety of inputs, actors, and mobilizations. A strategy that will surely arrest these developments is one that restores the old regime because of dislike toward part of the revolution (the part which is, in fact, the most solidly rooted in Egyptian society). If this reality is clearly kept in mind, then the choice between presidential candidates no longer appears as impossible and bitter.