The men and women who sparked the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime face a painful choice in the upcoming presidential election. But they still can make the best of a bad situation.
- By Bassem Sabry<p> Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian writer and blogger. </p>
On June 16 and 17, revolutionary Egyptians will face an unimaginably painful choice in the run-off to the presidential election, an event that was supposed to be a cause for celebration rather than a somber moment.
On one side stands Mohammed Morsi, the "backup" candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood after its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified. The Brotherhood has increasingly earned the distrust of revolutionary and "civil" (the word Egyptians use to describe political liberals) forces by working in the time since the fall of Mubarak to aggressively consolidate its hegemony over Egyptian political life. On the other side is Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s final prime minister, close confidante, rumored preferred choice for heir, and a powerful representative of the very regime Egyptians lost their lives fighting to bring down.
In retrospect, the road to this moment seems regrettably logical. It is the result of missteps by revolutionary forces, a growing disconnect between many of the activists and a significant percentage of Egyptian society, and the maneuverings of an Egyptian "deep state" that proved more powerful than previously calculated.
First, revolutionaries themselves admit that it was wrong to leave Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011, after Mubarak had officially stepped down, without installing a suitable government or a setting a detailed roadmap for the democratic transition. What’s more, it is argued that they miscalculated the breadth, depth, and reasons of the support for the revolution among the Egyptian people.
From the very beginning, there was a considerable difference in priorities among the groups that took to the streets and squares. For many of Egypt’s upper and middle class revolutionaries, the main call to arms was the political oppression and human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime. But for Egypt’s underprivileged, it was the dire living conditions, gross disparities in the concentration of wealth, and extreme economic corruption that served as a rallying cry. The oppressive conduct of Mubarak’s security apparatus before the revolution, and the unprecedentedly violent conduct during, also played a key role in shocking the nation into rebellion.
When Mubarak was eventually toppled, this rift broke out into the open. Many Egyptians felt the revolution had largely achieved its goals — 61 percent according to a May 2011 poll — and that it was time for stability, security and reconstruction in the country. However, activists believed that Mubarak’s fall was only the beginning of the road, and that the situation called for continued protest and action for the advancement of the revolution’s goals, particularly against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). With successive rounds of clashes with security forces, the most recent coming in May when protesters and security forces faced off outside the Ministry of Defense, protesters received the brunt of blame for fomenting instability.
But the revolutionaries’ challenges went beyond tactics to the very vision of Egypt’s future. Activist groups, in part due to the grassroots nature of the movement, were late in generating detailed proposals to achieve their goals. For example, while everyone was united in demands to "purge the judiciary" or "restructure the Interior Ministry," there were few concrete plans to achieve these goals, and fewer still that were effectively marketed to public opinion. As a result, activist groups lost many chances to pressure the current military regime and state institutions at the height of the revolution’s popularity.
The revolutionaries’ work was made even more difficult by the rise of new political forces and rifts within revolutionary ranks, which made it easier for SCAF to divide and conquer. The political ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood is part of this story, but the meteoric rise of the ultra-traditionalist Salafist movement also dumbfounded everyone’s calculations. The Salafists’ growing presence on the political scene proved worrisome for Egypt’s more moderate and liberal segments of society, furthering for many their tolerance of SCAF’s tight grip on power.
The Brotherhood also increasingly abandoned a more centrist path and earlier promises to widely share power, including breaking a pledge that it would not field a presidential candidate. Rather, they embarked on a grasp for power, and increasingly employed conservative rhetoric in an effort to solidify the support of its traditional base as the Salafists rose in prominence. Several disagreements arose between the Brothers and other forces, ranging from the March 2011 constitutional amendments referendum to the Brotherhood’s recent efforts to dominate the constitutional assembly. These controversies, in addition to a deep ideological divide, laid the foundation of the revolutionaries’ growing distrust of the Brotherhood and its candidate.
Perhaps most crucially, revolutionary and political forces underestimated the size, depth, and power of the remnants of Egypt’s former regime. It became clear over the past year that the country’s military and security institutions were determined to remain independent powerhouses on the Egyptian political scene and would fight efforts towards greater civilian control. With a climate of rising fear regarding religious conservatism and national instability, a divided revolutionary movement, as well as significant dissatisfaction with parliament’s performance, the "deep state" began to regain some of its power, and few were surprised with Shafiq’s eventual catapulting into the second round of the elections.
The more mainstream "revolutionary candidates," most prominently neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, were woefully disorganized to fend off this threat. The candidates severely underestimated Shafiq’s chances, and ran independently in the elections rather than uniting behind one candidate or a single ballot. Together, Sabbahi and Aboul Fotouh captured 8.8 million votes in last month’s first round of voting — far and away the largest single bloc in the election. However, because neither of these individual candidates were among the top two vote-getters, their voices were eliminated before the run-off election. A historic opportunity for the movement to lead was squandered.
After the slew of setbacks, the centrist heart of the Tahrir movement finds itself at a crossroads. Activists could pursue a "boycott-the-vote" campaign, or even spoil their ballots in an attempt to discredit both candidates and the election itself. Also, they could intensify efforts to prove allegations of electoral fraud, which include voter bribery and the blocking of campaign representatives from observing the vote. Moreover, they could — and have already taken some steps to — finally create some formal leadership to address both short-and-long-term goals of the revolutionary and civil movements. Another option would be to mount public pressure against the legality of Shafiq’s candidacy in the hopes that an Egyptian court, which is set to rule on June 14, will uphold the constitutionality of a law that excludes top Mubarak-era officials from holding office.
There is another way. In return for their support in defeating Shafiq, the revolutionary and civil forces could demand reassurances from the Brotherhood that they would be ensured one or more powerful vice presidents to represent them, a coalition government headed by a non-Brotherhood prime minister, a constitutional assembly that includes their voices, and reassurances on the future of human rights in Egypt. While some will argue Morsi is capable of winning the elections on his own — relying solely on the support of the Brotherhood and the Salafists — broadening his popular support base carries undeniable benefits. It would confer an undeniable national and revolutionary legitimacy as well as a more definite mandate as president, which the Brotherhood immensely needs at this point.
The Brotherhood, on its part, has expressed willingness to consider some of these proposals, but have yet to give the concrete guarantees that could decidedly calm fears, particularly given its continuing political feud with liberal group over the composition of the body that will draft Egypt’s new constitution. It would be a dramatic risk to take for Egypt’s "civil" revolutionary forces, given their dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood’s recent track record, but it could be the only option to save the revolution from a potentially fatal blow. The revolutionaries may not become king in this round, but they might have a chance to become kingmakers.