The view from the ground.

Once More Unto the Breach

Egypt's battered revolutionaries can't decide if they're winning -- or on the verge of a historic defeat.


For more images of Egypt's revolutionary soul-searching, click here. 

For more images of Egypt’s revolutionary soul-searching, click here. 

CAIRO – In downtown Cairo last week, dozens of familiar faces from Tahrir Square gathered at the Journalists’ Syndicate to discuss the next stage of the revolution. The lobby buzzed with the crackle of a shoddy sound system, scattered conversation, and the barks of organizers to keep it down. With none of their candidates making it through to the runoff in Egypt’s presidential election, scheduled for June 16 and 17, the revolutionaries were gathering to discuss pushing the nation to boycott the next stage of the very democratic process they fought to establish.

Standing in the crush of T-shirts, jeans, and scruffy beards, Nadine Wahab, one of the coordinators of Our Right, a movement that grew out of opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei’s canceled presidential campaign, seemed satisfied. "The boycott is a stand against the entire election process and not any one candidate," she said. "The question is whether the process itself will be a step in the transition of Egypt, and in my opinion it isn’t."

The revolutionaries’ strategizing was once again thrown into turmoil on June 2, when an Egyptian court sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak to life in prison but dismissed charges against his sons and top security officials. The ruling, widely derided as insufficient and politically motivated, re-energized the Egyptian protest movement: Thousands flocked to Tahrir to express their outrage at the ruling, chanting, "Not felool or the Brotherhood, the people want a president from the square!" (It sounds better in Arabic.) Politicking was never far from the surface, as Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsy joined the crowd in the hopes of changing the minds of boycott supporters like Wahab by associating himself with the revolutionary moment.

But the return to Tahrir doesn’t resolve the revolutionaries’ primary dilemma: In a few short weeks, Egyptians will go to the ballot box to choose a president who will not be from their ranks. Their choices are Morsy, the candidate of a conservative Islamist group that has a poor record of working with secular activists, and Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the former regime who has publicly praised Mubarak and openly called for trampling anyone who dares protest.

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.

When I caught up again with Wahab on the night of June 3 near Tahrir Square, she told me she wasn’t sure whether she would participate in the boycott, saying she might join the nullification campaign in an effort to discredit the election. She thinks it is still a mistake to negotiate with the Brotherhood, though the renewed protests do give the revolutionaries more leverage. "I’m still hesitant about what the real next step is, but I’m considering [nullifying my ballot]," she said. Though Wahab cautions the revolutionaries who want to negotiate with Morsy to remember the Brotherhood’s track record, "I now think, OK, it’s still a very bad decision, but at least now I can say, you’re going to the table with a bit of an even field," she said, referring to the rising number of people in the streets.

The idea of a presidential coalition is also gaining momentum in revolutionary circles. Parliamentarian Zyad Elelaimy, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition — one of the groups that organized the first day of the 18-day uprising — said that the coalition is planning to agitate for an "advisory board" composed of Morsy, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, and maverick Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who would then choose two more members and govern for a year. Shafiq, whom Elelaimy maintains should be disqualified based on a recently passed law that bars former top regime officials from running for office, would be excluded.

"We have to make the people discover if the candidates who are saying that they are part of the revolution are working for themselves or working for the revolution," Elelaimy told me. The coalition will be tasked with choosing a new constitutional committee, holding new elections, and instituting a taskforce on transitional justice.

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."

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.

According to Lotfi, the revolutionaries made two other huge blunders: The first was leaving Tahrir in the first place, instead of pressing their demands through constant street protests. The second was not starting a political party in March 2011. "It would have been the first million-member party in Egypt," he told me wearily in a coffee shop in downtown Cairo.

While the revolutionaries were protesting, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-traditionalist Salafis were deepening their networks in the countryside and getting ready for elections, reaping the fruits of the revolutionaries’ efforts in both the parliamentary and presidential elections.

When the revolutionaries — those that weren’t boycotting — finally did get around to preparing for elections, they split their vote between multiple candidates. In the parliamentary elections, liberals ran against each other for seats. During the presidential elections, those campaigning as candidates of the revolution made the same mistake: Aboul Fotouh received 19 percent of the vote while Sabbahi garnered 21.5 percent. That’s a silver lining for the veterans of Tahrir — they can say that nearly half the voters cast their votes for their candidates, suggesting there is a vast reservoir of voters out there to whom they can appeal. 

"After 80 years, the Muslim Brotherhood got 5 million votes. After 30 years of ruling Mubarak got 5 million votes. Us, after a year and half of dying, our candidates combined had 11 million votes," Mahmoud Salem, an influential blogger who writes under the handle of Sandmonkey, told me. "It’s actually amazing that people who don’t have their stuff together get this many votes."

But despite the optimistic spin, the revolutionaries seem intent on duplicating their old mistakes, splintering once again over what to do next. Some want to work with the Brotherhood to prevent a Shafiq victory, extracting whatever concessions they can from the Islamist movement. "I think there is a clear choice, between revitalizing the old regime represented by Shafiq or taking the bitter medicine of Morsi," said Wael Khalil, a veteran activist and member of Masrena ("Our Egypt"), a movement aligned with revolutionary activist Wael Ghonim that is working to present a list of demands to Morsy. "[A Shafiq victory] will be Mubarak back in power and to me this is a catastrophe."

Others support a boycott or nullification campaign, arguing that they must pressure the system for reform even as they admit they need the Brotherhood to balance the remnants of the old regime. "The only thing preserving us from being killed is them fighting each other. They don’t have time to see us, the flies, buzzing around," Hawary says. "If you have two wolves, just keep them there. Don’t eliminate one wolf so the other will eat you. Just keep them there, yapping at each other, until you figure out what you’re going to do."

Calculations like Salem’s have reinforced the belief that the Egyptian people are looking for a third way. Despite all the revolutionaries’ mistakes, there is still a chance they can unite and emerge as a major force on the country’s political scene.

"I think [the election results] might be a slap in the face, a wake-up call that things can be different if we unite and I think this time around I think I’m going to have to be optimistic because I don’t have any other choice, otherwise it’s a dead end," said Sally Sami, human rights activist and founding member of the Social Democratic Party, which holds 16 seats in Parliament. "The only chance we have is to create a strong movement that can hold whoever comes to power accountable."

And with thousands of protesters back on the streets and tents erected again in Tahrir, the revolutionaries appear to be getting another chance. Sitting with Wahab in an office next the square before an Our Right meeting, she told me she was hopeful, though far from certain, about what comes next.

"A week ago, I would have said the final nail is being slammed into the coffin of the revolution — well, I wouldn’t have said that, I would have thought it, but I wouldn’t have said that to anyone," she said, smiling. Now, "rather than the sort of downhill spiral that we were doing, we’re sort of marching back uphill and this time it looks like we may be able to put a nail in the coffin of the counter-revolution."

Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @satopol.

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