Transitions

Do the Ikhwan Shake

It turns out that the Harlem Shake fad has one redeeming quality: It seems to annoy Islamists to no end. 

The kids in the Pères Blancs high school in Tunis who filmed their version of the dance certainly didn't plan it that way. But once the clip went viral, they found themselves under attack by the minister of education himself, who went out of his way on a day off to accuse the students of immorality and "lack of respect for the institution of education. He ended his radio diatribe by threatening an "investigation" and "punishment for those responsible."

And that, really, was the epiphany for a new generation of protesters. Upon discovering that shakin' it for 30 seconds to an obscure remix of a Colombian Spanish tune (and bearing no resemblance to the actual Harlem Shake) drives Islamist-led government officials and their supporters absolutely nuts, young people in Tunisia knew what they had to do. The dance became a strange mark of political resistance. (Sigh.)

Days later, hackers defaced the Ministry of Education's website while others organized a Shake next to the ministry building.

That was probably the day when the dance went from being a fad to a political statement -- in furry costumes and boxer shorts. 

Various incidents occurred around the performances, most with little political significance -- students clashing with their school principals and so on. A more noteworthy clash occurred over a planned Harlem Shake gathering at the Bourguiba Language Institute, Tunis' best-known language school, which is located in one of the city's most conservative neighborhoods. But this time the malcontents were not the authorities but a dozen Salafi men and women who attempted to prevent students at the institute from indulging in the dance. One of the men, wearing military gear and carrying a Molotov cocktail he never used, told the dancers that he wanted to prevent them "from sinning, as you are dancing while the Israelis are killing our brothers in Palestine." The students responded with shouts of "dégage!" ("go away"), a bit of fisticuffs ensued, and then the Salafis departed, leaving the students to film their video

In a similar fashion, Egyptian activists also somehow figured out that their government seriously disliked the dance -- and proceeded to milk that knowledge for all that it's worth. After the first "Shakers" were arrested for dancing in their underwear late last month, activists upped the ante and organized a Harlem Shake of their own in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. MB officials tried to put a good face on things, at least at first. "Any peaceful form of demonstration is welcomed," said spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. He then qualified his remark by adding that he doubted that the event would remain peaceful: "These matters always lead to violence which is unacceptable." The event went ahead anyway, and ended without event. There were as many journalists on the scene as dancers.

The choice of location is quite interesting in itself. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood has no official governmental affiliation. The dance could have been organized near any of the government ministries, the presidential palace, or even the headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm. But the dancers chose to go to what many view as the real source of political power in Egypt: the opaque and unregistered organization that is the Muslim Brotherhood. "The event is in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters because we know their office is ruling the country," stated one of the organizers. 

In retaliation, a handful of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in an attempt to mock the opposition, also recorded their own clip, wearing homemade masks that depicted various opposition leaders. Sadly for them, one of them was promptly identified and mercilessly mocked on social media. The lead character in the video was ultimately compelled to apologize [in Arabic] to his fellow Muslim Brothers, admitting the video might have been "shocking and inappropriate for many." 

 

Now, what sort of real political change is likely to come from a Harlem Shake protest? Zero. Imagining that dancing for 30 seconds could produce any sort of serious result is naïve at best. Unlike a genuine protest, a quick Shake barely sends any message to the state and the public: The number of people involved is a few dozen at best, and the people who watch the Youtube clips are hardly the general public.

It is, however, an effective way of telling off The (Islamist) Man and making a statement. In this sense, the overreaction authorities played right into the hands of the dancers.

And if we factor in the age of most of the Harlem Shakers in transition countries, we realize that this is probably, for a large number of them, their first act of political rebellion. Even if it was in costume and underwear.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The irony of Kenya's election reforms

Technology has failed Kenyans in the 2013 general election. Over the past few months, election officials and their friends in the media have raised public hopes for a fair election by hyping measures to modernize the voting system. But it's possible that these new reforms could instead become the cause of increased tensions.

In some areas, the much-anticipated biometric voter identification kits only started arriving in the early morning hours on election day. Given that polling was slated to start at 6:00 A.M., this left polling agents with hardly enough time to test the equipment, much less to charge its batteries. As a result, it came as little surprise when the kits began to fail just a few hours into voting. There were a number of reasons cited, including low battery life, the lack of electricity in certain areas, and polling officers' difficulties in accessing the central system.

As a result, many polling centers around the country abandoned the biometric kits in favor of the manual register. As a back-up, the manual register, which is supposed to exist in each polling place, is a useful instrument, providing voters' identification numbers and photographs. Complete reliance on it, however, especially in this election, is questionable. The biometric kits were brought in early on in the process and first used to register voters. The machines record voters' biographic information, photographs and -- most critically -- their fingerprints. On election day, the machines were meant to use this biometric data to positively identify registered voters and reject those who had not registered, ultimately providing a check on ballot-box stuffing.

Of course, the manual register should provide a similar check, for it includes everything on the biometric kit except the fingerprints. The problem, however, is that the manual register is vulnerable to unscrupulous individuals, who could much more easily manipulate the paper list of eligible voters. This is especially problematic in party stronghold areas, where public pressure to produce a victory for the candidate who comes from that area can bear down on polling officers.

These issues highlight a bigger problem as well: the lack of a final, published register of voters. As of election day, the final register had not been released, despite promises to the contrary made by the national election commission, the IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission). The lack of the final register begs some important questions. Were there problems with the provisional register? If so, what were they and why were they unable to be resolved in time for elections? And most importantly, was it the provisional register or the final register that was used during elections? If it was the former, is it possible that ineligible people were able to cast ballots?

Early on Tuesday morning, the IEBC also announced that its electronic results transmission system (ERT), which was supposed to have allowed polling officers to use mobile phones to immediately transmit results over a secure network, had experienced a "glitch." In a public press briefing, the IEBC said that the problem, which was related to insufficient server space to accommodate all the incoming results, had been resolved.

The ERT system had been in the hot seat in the days leading up to the election. Tests of the system had revealed deficiencies, and Kenyans were wondering what provisions had been made in case of the system being hacked or in the case of system failure. The "glitch" was thus unsurprising to many. This was compounded, however, by the incredibly slow pace of incoming results. If the error had been resolved, why were only 40 percent of polling centers reporting results more than 24 hours after the official close of voting? And even more inexplicable was the fact that results of many other, lower-level races were still streaming in from around the country. If presidential tallies were supposed to completed and reported first, why were there so many non-presidential results coming in while the presidential results were still at just a trickle?

The slow pace of incoming presidential results and questionability of the ERT system on Tuesday seem suspiciously related to the virtually unchanging difference in the margin of support for the top two contenders, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga. For most of Tuesday, the IEBC's live stream showed Kenyatta having garnered around 54 percent of votes and Odinga having won about 40 percent of all votes. This came into sharp focus when it became clear that the IEBC was calculating percentages based on the total number of "valid" votes, rather than the total number of votes cast. There has been concern that many votes were non-justifiably rejected, confusion that voting reforms were hoping to avoid.

In order to win outright in the first round, a successful presidential candidate needs to win an overall majority of the vote and at least 25 percent of the vote in each of more than half the country's 47 counties. Calculating the top two contenders' support based on the total votes cast, as required by the constitution, showed Kenyatta with about 50.1 percent of the vote and Odinga with 39.5 percent of the vote.

Tuesday night, in an attempt to offer a public explanation, IEBC Chairman Ahmed Isaak Hassan announced that the traditionally used "returning officers" from around the country would be in Nairobi on Wednesday to personally file results. He added that the percentages of votes for the presidential candidates would be calculated based on the total number of votes cast.

The announcement was controversial, as it reduced Kenyatta's margin (as of late yesterday evening) to a very bare majority, which could easily change as more results come in. It also raises more questions about the ERT system. Now that it has been abandoned, it is important to know what happened. What were the problems with the system and why could they not be resolved? What checks are there on the manual forms, now that the check of the electronically-transmitted results is unavailable? Given the IEBC's multiple assurances that the ERT system was fool-proof, Kenyans deserve a comprehensive explanation as to what happened.

The chairman was visibly shaken as he spoke on Tuesday evening, but his announcement was a much-needed, informative update.

Technological failures do not necessarily mean a less credible election. Much will be revealed in the coming days, especially with regard to how stringently (or not) the law was followed around the country. Let's hope that even without the much-touted technology, Kenyans will be able to rest assured that the election results reflect the public will. 

Seema Shah is a political analyst based in Nairobi

Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images