A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Has Tahrir, Divided between Secularists and Islamists, Lost its Effeciveness?

Just as Tahrir Square in Cairo filled with demonstrators after the verdict in the President Mubarak case, so it filled again today in a demonstration aimed at protesting the candidacy of Ahmad Shafiq. But the crowd was divided between the liberal revolutionaries of various stripes on the one hand, who want to see a "Presidential Council" set up consisting of Presidential candidates other than Shafiq, in place of holding the election runoffs, and then writing the constitution and holding new elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to see Shafiq disqualified from running, but opposes the Presidential Council idea.  The Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, is of course in the runoff, and hardly eager to see the runoff canceled. They seem to have canceled each other out:

The revolutionaries may well see Tahrir through a romantic lens as an empowering symbol of the great days of January and February 2011, but then Tahrir was the focus of a nationwide revolt with smaller demonstrations throughout the country. Today, Ben Wedemann of CNN noted that:
and linked to thjs photo:

Although many of the revolutionaries responded to the verdict by calling for a renewed revolution, there are some uncomfortable facts facing them this time. Despite many claims of rigging to guarantee that Shafiq, the perceived candidate of the old regime, made it into the runoff, no one has brought forth genuinely incriminating proof.  Assuming the results resemble the truth, nearly half the electorate voted for the two top vote-getters. (And by the same token, just over half voted for others.) The "Presidential Council" approach, especially since Morsi rejects it, is a non-starter, and if, as some are pledging, ex-candidates Sabahi, Abu'l-Futuh and Khalid Ali proclaim it on their own, it will be an empty gesture with no legality. As liberal Member of Parliament and longtime democracy activist Amr Hamzawy has noted, it would in fact be a "coup d'etat against democracy."

Some of the revolutionaries seem to recognize this:

Sarah A. Topol at Foreign Policy has a piece on the growing "revolutionary soul-searching." She captures the confusion about what to do next:
The renewed revolutionary zeal has buoyed activists' shared assumption that they are not alone in their fight. But on the million-dollar question of what to do next -- boycott the vote entirely, approach Morsy with demands for concessions in exchange for political support, push a "nullification campaign" to convince 51 percent of voters to spoil their ballots, or plug an initiative for a five-member presidential advisory council -- some stalwart activists remain torn.
She finds some of the revolutionaries willing to recognize that they made tactical mistakes:
Everyone readily admits that after deposing Mubarak, the revolutionaries did not have a post-Tahrir plan, and time and again, they fell back on their mainstay tactic of protesting in the street when military rulers did something they didn't like -- shutting down central Cairo and sending the local economy into a tailspin. Although they won concessions at times, most Egyptians lost patience with the instability and yearned for security.
"We were so keen to ensure that we would not start anything to get [personal] benefits and do everything for the sake of the country, and to ensure this, I think we harmed the country," said Islam Lotfi, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and a founder of the Egyptian Current, a political party created by Muslim Brotherhood Youth members who were kicked out of the Islamist group last spring. The coalition, for example, refused to negotiate with SCAF shortly after Mubarak's fall on the grounds that they didn't want to say they represented the Egyptian people -- thereby losing a valuable bargaining chip.
She quotes another who agrees, but does so more concisely and pungently (language warning, but I'm just quoting Foreign Policy so don't complain to me):
But whatever happens next, there is widespread agreement that the revolutionaries' performance since the magical 18 days of protest that ended Mubarak's reign has been nothing short of disastrous. "We fucked up a lot," said Ahmed Hawary, a leading member of Our Right who ran as part of a liberal coalition in last year's parliamentary election and was defeated. "We're always fucking up. Since day one, it's all a series of being fucked over by our own decisions. Since March 2011, it's downhill all the way from there."

I would agree, but add that SCAF,  which began the revolutionary era as the people's ally and is today opposed by almost everyone except Shafiq's voters, has also, in Hawary's accurate if inelegant phrasing, "fucked up a lot."  Many decisions made by SCAF have been every bit as bad as those made by the revolutionaries, especially holding Parliamentary and Presidential elections before. We've all been plagued by the question of whether SCAF is massively incompetent or genuinely malevolent; I think a lot of people have concluded that it is both. But within this highly imperfectly managed transition, Egyptians did vote. There has been no convincing proof of massive fraud, or fraud entirely on one side.

I would not want to have to choose, as Egyptians must, between a remnant of the old regime and a Muslim Brother. Shafiq still faces corruption charges as well as the question of the Parliamentary law that banned candidacies by key members of the Mubarak regime; either might still disqualify him constitutionally, but the time for that is fast running out.

Ironically, the growing hostility of the left and middle of the secular vote to Shafiq is likely to drive a portion of the non-Islamist vote to bite the bullet and vote for Morsi as the lesser evil (an unproven judgment). But one thing seems clear: however angry and frustrated the massed demonstrators in Tahrir may be, the Muslim Brotherhood half of the square knows exactly what it wants, while the secular half seems increasingly bewildered.

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