Praying for power: Sidelined from the political process, protesters at Cairo’s Tahrir Square hold Friday prayers on July 8th
CAIRO: The January revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak did not bring about regime change, and protesters are back at Tahrir Square to complete that task. But amid frenzied politicking and maneuvers by the military, young revolutionaries whose fearless struggle instigated the change risk being left out. Beyond keeping the flame alive at the Cairo square, they need organization to be a partner in regime transformation.
The smell of grilled corn and sweet potatoes sold by itinerant vendors has replaced the smell of tear gas in Tahrir Square. Thousands camping in the square – most in makeshift tents, shielding them from the summer sun – are joined every day by fellow protesters or visitors who drag their children amidst the crowds and ad-hoc stages noisily spewing chanting, rants and the occasional musical interlude.
Since a massive protest on July 8th, similar sit-ins have been replicated across the country, from Alexandria on the Mediterranean to Aswan in the south.
Protesters demand justice for victims of
Protesters demand justice for victims of the January revolution, including at least 1000 fatalities; speedier trials for deposed President Mubarak and his cronies; and the end of military trials for civilians and release of all civilians imprisoned by military decision. All problems, protesters contend, can be traced back to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has assumed power since Mubarak’s removal in February. The SCAF is widely viewed as resistant to change, with its leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, a close collaborator with Mubarak and Egypt’s defense minister for two decades.
A transitional government, led by protester-vetted Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, scrambles to refashion a government acceptable to the population and implement the revolution’s goals, despite SCAF resistance. The SCAF attempts to maintain a course it pushes onto the nation – parliamentary elections in the fall, followed by selection of a committee to draft a new constitution, and finally presidential elections, after which the SCAF has promised to withdraw from power. How far SCAF will withdraw remains unknown.
While Sharaf should be leading a caretaker government until elections bring about an elected one, his cabinet is under pressure by both the public and the army to make far-reaching decisions for which it lacks political and popular mandate. The national budget, for instance, already through a few drafts, is likely to be refashioned by a just-appointed minister of finance. While the plan for government spending includes increased budgetary lines for government salaries, increasing the shamefully low government minimum wage and hence responding to one of the protesters’ chief demands, a new higher tax bracket was also introduced. Health and education spending saw disproportionately small increases. The document hence betrays a bow to popular pressure, a problematic precedent.
A caretaker cabinet is under pressure to make far-reaching decisions for which it lacks popular mandate.
The government also suspended borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, an about-face on a $3 billion loan agreed on June 5th. Welcoming the decision, the public viewed it as anti-imperialist rejection on the part of the government, without discussing the rationality, if only in terms of the signal this may send international markets.
Yet since the revolution the government has accepted grants and loans from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – nearly $10 billion of soft loans with various repayment periods. That Saudi Arabia opposed Mubarak’s stepping down and Gulf countries are conservative by nature – having shown little support to the democratic movement in North Africa and the Middle East, culminating in coordinated military intervention in Bahrain to help quell the democratic movement there – should have occasioned more reflection than it did.
Political parties seeking to compete in the upcoming elections are mushrooming at a blinding speed. No week goes by without a new party being declared “under establishment.” Rightist, leftists, religious and secular parties – all pop up on the political scene. Most are built around notorious public personalities with no clear political program, and perhaps all but one, El Adl party, founded by the inner team of presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, have no communication strategy to speak of. Realistically, most newly formed parties will find it logistically impossible to reach the electorate before the parliamentary elections in which they hope to compete.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Al Ikhwan al Muslimin, historically Egypt’s most organized opposition group, was created in 1928 by a young scholar, Hassan El Banna, and steadily garnered a dedicated followership. Since the 1952 coup, the group was legally outlawed but tolerated, its members forming alliances with small parties to field candidates.
An integral part of the January 25th evolution, the Brotherhood found a national acceptance to which it’s unaccustomed, from other opposition parties but also the army.
Far from relishing in its bliss, the Brotherhood lives its most confusing hour. It promised not to field presidential candidates in the first post-revolution elections, but nurses dreams of controlling “35 to 40 percent of the parliament’s seats” as spokesperson Essam El-Erian casually repeats. This goal may be difficult to achieve. Ten days after the deposition of Mubarak, the MB announced the establishment of the “Freedom and Justice” party to represent the organization, led by members of the MB’s Guidance Council. Not everyone agrees with the party’s program and its leadership, and an increasing number of members express reticence on towing the line.
A number of revolutionary youth
After brief hesitation, the Brotherhood made up its mind with regards to democracy and disagreement within the movement: There would be none. The Guidance Council has punished dissenting members and reportedly investigated those who have joined other political parties. Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, a leading reformist figure within the organization, was expelled after declaring he planned on running for president. Members of the organization’s forward-looking youth wing have also seen their membership terminated after co-founding a new political party, the Egyptian Current. Another two non-Brotherhood parties are emerging, with a more or less radical interpretation of political Islam. This fragmentation of Islamist representation – and one would extrapolate of the Islamist vote – threatens the Muslim Brotherhood’s stronghold on this political brand. Other analysts, however, view that a widening political Islam offer on the electoral market could increase the parliamentary presence of this branch of politics.
Meanwhile, many struggle to hold on to the original ideals of the revolution. Juggling to maintain pressure on the ground and fend off occasional attacks from criminals or the police who share eerily similar modi operandi, most are left aside from the political scene.
It’s true that a number of revolutionary youth are active in political parties, but almost never in leadership positions. Ad-hoc groups – whose names invariably include some combination of the words “youth,” “coalition,” “January 25th” and “revolution” – are pullulating, with no real mandate yet speaking on behalf of the revolution nevertheless. The public tolerates a few of these youth groups, in the absence of a coherent representation. Their divergent political ideas – from boycotting the existing government to coordinating with the army – dilutes the youths’ power.
The young revolutionaries on the street – the salt of the democratic movement – are cast aside from the political development of the country, held hostage by an undemocratic Army Supreme Council, a caretaking government with populist tendencies and opportunist political parties with token youth representation. The revolutionary youth are aware of this –yet disorganized and knee-deep in what can only be qualified as the day-to-day protection of their revolution. Meanwhile, the political process goes on without them. The young revolutionaries, hailed in the beginning of every political speech but thereafter disregarded, must find a way to participate in the electoral political process – and fast.