Exasperated by their failure to shape events in their country sincelast year's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, thousands ofEgyptian revolutionaries were back in Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Thetrigger for the latest wave of protests was Saturday'sconviction of Mubarak and a top aide over the killing ofdemonstrators during the uprising that began in January 2011 the protestors claim that the verdict whitewashed many otherregime figures and they suspect that the life imprisonment sentencewill not stand. More than that, they are demandingthe disqualification of Mubarak's former Prime Minister,Ahmed Shafik, from the June 16 presidential election runoff against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy. But more protests in the iconic squareare unlikely to change the power dynamic that has sidelinedthe revolutionaries, who now find themselves repeating failedpatterns and hoping for a different result. |
For all their fervor, those on the streets are relatively isolatedfrom the wider Egyptian population and lacking a coherentstrategy. Tahrir Square, after all, is not the nexus of power in Egypt , and those gathered there could stay put for weeks or monthswithout changing the power arrangements around them. That's asignificant change from 18 months ago, when the very presence ofcrowds in the square signaled a rupture in the edifice of fear thathad sustained Mubarak's authoritarian rule, emboldening tensof thousands to join the protests demanding his ouster. But sinceMubarak was wheeled offstage by the generals at the core of hisregime, protest on the square has become commonplace and itssignificance has changed. Indeed, reports suggest that a largeproportion of Egyptians outside the square are growing increasinglyintolerant of the economic disruptions created by endlessprotests.
( MORE: Egypt's Presidential Choices: The Trouble with Democracy) The new protests come on the eve of the June 16 presidentialelection runoff between Morsy, who won the most votes in the firstround, and Shafik. A choice between the Islamists and the oldregime is hardly what the revolutionaries had in mind when theyfirst took to the square, but they've failed to produce awinning alternative and the runoff finds them once again scramblingfor a strategy. "Not felool or the Brotherhood," demonstrators in the square chantedTuesday, using the slang term for elements of the old regime inreference to Shafik. "The people want a president from thesquare!" Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, there'slittle evidence to back their claim to speak for "thepeople." Their numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of thosewho have turned out in two post-Mubarak elections to vote for theBrotherhood.
And the surge of support for felool candidates reflects growing anxiety in Egyptian society overthe lawlessness and chaos that has pervaded the post-Mubarakmoment. Voter turnout in the first round of presidential balloting was just 42%, compared with 54% for lastyear's parliamentary polls swept by the Brotherhood and therival Islamists of the Salafist movement. Morsy won 25% of thevote, closely trailed by Shafik with 24%. While fear anduncertainty drove the Shafik vote, the Brotherhood was able to relyon its strong grassroots organizational network something therevolutionaries on the square have failed to replicate amongordinary Egyptians. Still, it was remarkable that leftistpresidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi finished with 21% of the voteand liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh won 18% that's a solid 39% of voters who sought an alternativeto the old regime and the Brotherhood.
But adding those numberstogether is an entirely hypothetical exercise, since therevolutionary camp has been hopelessly divided on politicalstrategy. Right now, some on the square are urging a boycott of thepresidential runoff, as if this would somehow challenge itslegitimacy. But would anyone even notice, or would the protesterssimply be branded sore losers? Others press for"nullification," hoping to persuade a majority ofvoters to spoil their ballots. But that would take a level oforganization and the ability to engage with ordinary voters ofwhich the revolutionaries have thus far proved incapable.
Others,still, are urging that the country be ruled by a presidentialcouncil that includes the likes of Sabahi and Fotouh, while somewant to offer Morsy support but in exchange for guarantees on aseries of democratic demands. None of these options appears likelyto seriously alter the power dynamic. And the demand to disqualifyShafik under a recent law preventing former regime officials fromrunning for office would turn the runoff into a referendum onMorsy. Analyst Michael Waheed Hannah argues the Brotherhood is morelikely to lose a race with no opponent than it is to lose a raceagainst a candidate bearing felool baggage.
( MORE: Egypt Elections: Could a Pro-Military Candidate Be President Fairand Square?) But the revolutionaries remain (politically) trapped in the squarewith a limited organization and power base, which limits theirability to shape events. They deride the Brotherhood'sconservatism and accuse it of duplicity and complicity with theregime, yet they appear to lack a strategy for competingeffectively with the Islamists among the impoverished majority, letalone one for effecting a real shift in power in Egypt. Despite the dramatic events of the past 18 months, there has infact been no "revolution" in Egypt. A revolution bydefinition is a dramatic shift in power from one section of societyto another, and the grim reality in Egypt is that the regime onceheaded by Mubarak remains very much in power, despite his ouster.Some of the personnel at the top have changed, but not the regimeitself.
The generals, however, have adroitly draped themselves in the rhetoric of revolution by embracing its slogans and claiming to be its stewards, evenas their actions are clearly designed to demobilize the populationand stabilize the status quo. Indeed, for all the drama surrounding Mubarak's trial and thepresidential runoff, the fact remains that it is the SupremeCouncil of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that calls the shots. Thegenerals made the decision to oust Mubarak and take powerthemselves in February 2011, and they made the decision to putMubarak on trial a ritual humiliation of the old regime evenas the old authoritarian power structure in Egypt remainedunchanged. The presidential election will matter only as much asthe junta allows it to matter the generals have alreadydetermined who can and can't run, and it appears inclined todefine what powers any new president will have.
The parliamentary and presidential elections haven't beenabout transferring power from the military to politiciansrepresenting the will of the people, as much as potentiallyestablishing a legitimate basis for those elected politicians tochallenge the military for greater democratic control.They're the start of a process, rather than its culmination,and it's already clear that the Brotherhood is centering itsown plans on pressing for authority to be transferred to electedinstitutions. Whether the generals have a strategy or are simplyimprovising, the reality is that they hold the reins of power andshow no intention of transferring executive power to an electedgovernment. There may be epic struggles ahead to shape the post-Mubarak order,but they're unlikely to be settled in Tahrir Square. Thejunta has proven adept at absorbing the impact of protests,occasionally tossing out the odd concession but also relying on thedistance between the demonstrators and much of society around themto build resentment of the disruption and uncertainty, andeventually clear the square. If they are to avoid that fate again those on the square need a strategy to connectwith the mass of ordinary Egyptians who have not joined theirprotest.
( MORE: Egypt's Presidential Front Runners: Who Has the Worse Past? ).
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