The first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections is less than two weeks. Campaign posters are covering street lights, underpasses and some parties have even rented out billboards. Leaflets are being handed out on the metro and the Salafists have discovered how to use modern technology to disseminate a political message. With nearly fifty different political parties bearing similar names – thirty-six of which have been formed in the past eight months – there is considerable confusion about their idealogical stances. Moreover in the internal party-competition around the ordering of party lists, prominent activists and politicians have continued to switch parties or start new ones to ensure their placement at the top of the list. To clear up these increasingly turbid waters, some enterprising souls have graphed the parties on a left-right and religious-secular political axes. Others have formed websites that after testing your stance on the key political issues match you with the political party of “your dreams”. (The tests are available here and here) (For more on these issues read an excellent article by Nate Wright.) Keep Reading
If I were not in Cairo at the moment I’d by up on Cass Lake in Northern Minnesota teaching swimming, leading some canoe trips, and listening to taps:
The Day is done; gone the Sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
As evening descends, it is fitting that I attempt an analytical update on what has become a deceptively stable situation in Tahrir. Early Yesterday afternoon, the clashes along Mohammed Mahmoud St remained in a stalemate as the protestors never gathered the critical masses necessary to push Central Security Forces (CSF) of the pivotal intersection leading to the Interior Ministry. Later that afternoon, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered the CSF to stand down, deployed soldiers to protect the Interior Ministry, and launched an formal inquiry to ascertain the causes of the violence scene in Cairo over the past few days. While these actions mollified many of the protestors, others declared the start of the “Second Revolution” and called for a sit-in in Tahrir Square. To that end, a couple hundred people pitched a couple of tents and spent last night in Tahrir.
In fact, the situation was so calm that I had class at the American University today despite the fact that its gate was located in the tear-gass-filled no man’s land yesterday.
All is not as it seems, however. All forms of police presence have withdrawn from Tahrir. The white-shirted traffic cops were nowhere to be found; instead youth from popular committees are directing traffic as SCAF has elected to secede the symbolic space to the protestors.
This small victory is misleading, however, as the protestors currently gathered in Tahrir face a number of critical issues:
1. There is no united goal. Some of the protestors are family and friends of the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution demanding justice for their loved ones. Others are social activists and youth leaders demanding the resignation of the minister of the interior, the head of SCAF, or both. A few are baltagiya (hoodlums) looking to provoke a fight. Others are liberals demanding the drafting of a constitution prior the holding of Parliamentary elections in September. Most, however, are spectators who journeyed to Tahrir to watch the spectacle unfold.
The protests of late January and early February that led to disposal of Mubarak presented a common goal that not only prevented the regime from peeling individual elements off from the greater whole, but more importantly provided a single rallying cry that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Tahrir. The current protests lack this unifying goal.
2. The protestors lack the critical mass necessary to procure change. As cliché as it sounds numbers matter and quantity has a quality all of its own. Efforts by the April 6th Movement to move up the July 8th Day of Rage to today failed; A Facebook Event has emerged calling for a week-long sit tomorrow in order to preserve the revolution (but at the time of this post it had a mere 401 attendees). Mobilizing large numbers people is extremely difficult. Not only must there by a common message (which the current protests lack), but that message must be publicized effectively. While communicational technology – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – certainly aids in the latter endeavor, it reaches only the slimmest of slivers within Egyptian society – a sliver most of whose constituency is already in Tahrir.
3. People are tired of the lack of security and stability. In March when more than seventy percent of the Egyptian society voted in favor of the constitutional amendments, many were persuaded that a “yes” vote would lead to economic stability. Instead, labor strikes and sit-ins have become a common occurrence; tourism and foreign investment have fled the country; and the Egyptian Pound is depreciating on a daily basis. Despite refusing loans from the IMF and World Bank, Egypt’s economy is in shambles and will likely face a foreign exchange crisis in the not so distance future. Continued protests ensure continued instability that will continue to deter both foreign investment and tourists. Thus, while it was difficult to put bread on the table during the reign of the Mubarak, this difficulty pales in comparison to current situation today. As a result, significant segments of the Egyptian society have become frustrated and are decrying protestors for their lack of patience.
4. There a large elements of Egyptian society that oppose any attempts to derail the transition process. The interests Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Salafists, SCAF and former opposition parties (like al-Wafd) are best served Parliamentary elections are held in September. A new government would provide a convenient whipping boy for SCAF as it seeks to dodge the public ire and preserve its historical rule as the dominant player in Egyptian politics – especially given its refusal to grant any new civilian government oversight to its internal affairs. Meanwhile, early elections favor the MB, Salafists, and former opposition parties as they already possess the local political networks necessary to mobilize voters in an election.
SCAF, however, continues make political errors and squander opportunities to defuse the situation. Today, they allowed the trial Khaled Said’s murder to be postponed to September 24. While this ultimately will ensure the justice runs its due course (by allowing the prosecution to present additional evidence), SCAF nonetheless missed an opportunity to alleviate some of the tension found in Tahrir.
Ultimately, however, it is too early to tell where these protests will lead. Despite their many flaws listed above, the protests nonetheless possess the potential to mushroom in the near future. For nearly a month, Constitution First coalitions have been meticulously organizing a Day of Rage for next Friday (July 8, 2011). That is day of reckoning; not only are its demands supported by a petition carrying more than 15 million signatures but it has been renamed the Friday of Retribution.
It’s 2:30am at the moment and although I have not written in a while, I must confess I had not planned on writing until the end of the week. However, events this evening have demanded a blog post.
At some point after midnight this evening (or early this morning), Egyptian security forces attempted to disperse an unknown number of people who had gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior to protest delays in the trials of those responsible for deaths of protestors during the revolution. Most of these peoples were family members of the deceased whom Egyptians call the “Martyrs of the Revolution”.
The central security forces elected to open fire upon the protesters with tear gas in a scene reminiscent to this end of this past January. The protestors, in turn, fought back with rocks and chunks of cement and the result was a running street battle during which the protesters were pushed back to Medan Tahrir. Protesters were joined by reinforcements including elements of the baltagiya (hoodlums, trouble-makers) until around two thousand people had gathered in Medan Tahrir. The security forces, however, were reinforced by both armored cars and riot police succeeded in clearing all but a few protestors from the square. However, as I right these words, elements from youth committees (including the Muslim Brotherhood) are moving to Tahrir to support the protestors and the mosque in Tahrir has begun broadcasting statements through its loud speakers demanding that the police stand down as eighty percent of those in Tahrir are revolutionaries .
At first glance these actions may seem to make little sense. Not only was the curfew was lifted a couple of weeks ago but the hour was already very late making it likely that the protests would have dispersed themselves within an hour or so especially since they lacked the numbers and supplies to wage a lengthy sit-in. When viewed in the context of both the current public discourse in Egypt and coming events of the next week or so, the rationale of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is revealed.
There is a large segment of the Egyptian society that is unsatisfied with the rushed transition process ushered in by a rushed referendum on constitutional amendments this past March. This referendum set the schedule for the transition process: Parliamentary elections this September (under a mixed system of both proportional and district representation) and presidential elections in November/December. This new government will them appoint a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution. This schedule favors the political organizations with established networks like the Muslim Brotherhood (despite its newly revealed deep schisms), the former National Democratic Party (NDP), the former opposition parties (like Wafd) and the Salafists. Furthermore, the schedule enjoys the support of the army (especially SCAF) who hopes to flee the public eye as soon as possible and return to its historical role of governing the Egyptian state behind the scenes in relative obscurity.
Youth coalitions, liberal intellectuals, and leftist social workers (among many other groups), however, lack the networks necessary to succeed in these rushed elections and fear an Islamist “hijacking” of the revolution. As such they have gathered under the banner of Constitution First in order to pressure SCAF into appointing a constitutional committee to draft a constitution or at the very least adopt a bill of rights that ensures equal rights for all citizens. To further these ends, these factions have gathered more than 15 million signatures on a petition and called for a Day of Rage on July 8, 2011.
In my opinion, given that acceding to these demands means delay the transition process, the SCAF elected to send a message to the Constitution First bloc tonight. Those protesting in front of the Ministry of the Interior are of the same political leanings of the Constitution First bloc. Thus, by violently protesting this demonstration, SCAF gives the bloc a taste of what is in store for them if they follow through with the Day of Rage on July 8, 2011.
This represents a gross miscalculation on the part of the SCAF. First, the behavior is out the textbook of the former regime and thereby enhances the already growing association between SCAF and Mubarak’s repression in the minds of Egyptians. Second, the Egyptian populace is no longer characterized as afraid, apathetic and meek. The January 25 Revolution shattered these barriers and as such violent repression is no longer a deterrence but a provocation.
Therefore – if I dare to hazard a prediction – the July 8, 2011 protests will not only go forward as planned but also likely include a relatively larger segment of the Egyptian society. Furthermore, the object of protest will not be limited to the schedule of the transition process but rather extend to include sharp criticism of the SCAF itself.
For those wanting more information:
Twitter Tags: #Tahrir, #Jun28,
Youtube Video (in arabic)
Lastly, for those concerned I was not in Tahrir this evening. I watched the protests on al-Jazeera Arabic from the safety on my apartment.