On eve of Egypt's election, a revolution reboot

November 26, 2011 - 1:20 PM
Mideast Egypt

An Egyptian protester looks through a concrete block barricade erected by the army to block the street between Tahrir Square and the Interior Ministry in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. The graffiti on the wall, in Arabic, reads: reads in Arabic:

NAG HAMMADI, Egypt (AP) — In the southern province of Qena — one of Egypt's poorest — Mostafa el-Shatbi is running for parliament with one of the new crop of post-revolution political parties in the city of Nag Hammadi.

"I am not expecting to win," the 57-year-old veteran labor activist said, sitting in a cafe overlooking the Nile River in the agricultural and industrial city. This election is a "rehearsal" for future ones.

El-Shatbi, running on the Adl Party ticket, said he can't break the hold of former members of Hosni Mubarak's ousted ruling party in the race, who belong to powerful local families and are backed by networks of tribal and blood ties built up over years of buying loyalties.

The Nag Hammadi contest exemplifies a key reason why many of the liberal and leftist youth groups behind the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 shunned the campaign leading up to landmark parliamentary elections due to start Monday. Many felt it will just recreate a Mubarak-style legislature.

"They don't know much about the basics of politics here," Mohammed el-Sheini, a former ruling party member who is one of the front-runner candidates in Nag Hammadi, said dismissively of the young new political crop.

El-Sheini is the 31-year-old scion of a landowning family that has held a seat in parliament for at least three generations.

Dressed in slick beige pants and a shirt, he held court recently at his mansion, meeting with influential locals, dressed in traditional jalabiya robes, sitting on dried-mud benches and sipping from a continual flow of dark tea. His older brother, a former police officer, is also running as a candidate and threatened to bring out backers to shut down roads in the south and block voting if the revolutionaries got their way and former regime candidates were barred from running.

"If we lose the seat, then we gained nothing from this revolution," el-Sheini said.

For months, however, the alternative to the election has not been clear — either to the revolutionary activists or the Egyptian public, whose support for revolutionaries frittered away.

The explosive return to protests over the past week in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities has brought some clarity. The new uprising is an opportunity for Egypt's revolutionaries to repair nine months of mistakes and reboot the country's transition to democracy on their terms, not those of the military that took power after Mubarak's ouster.

The youth groups who led the uprising against Mubarak admit they failed to capitalize on the people power they mobilized. They have been divided, snarled in debates and infighting, unable to rally behind a platform or strategy. The distrust of authority that drove them also meant they ostracized anyone who emerged as a leader or engaged in the political process as tainted, too willing to compromise for power.

Some dove into election campaigning, forming new parties. But they have struggled to present a cohesive message, squabbling over personalities and ideologies. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are posed to win a plurality — even a majority — in the next parliament.

Other activists refused and instead took a long-term strategy. They formed advocacy groups concentrating on convincing the public their revolution was unfinished and that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — the council of generals who are all holdovers from the Mubarak era — was only preserving the autocratic ways of his nearly 30-year rule.

They now say the crowds in Tahrir, more than 100,000 on Friday, vindicate their vision, showing they have tapped into a vein of anti-military feeling that can overturn the rules of the game.

"This has been a period of revenge (against the revolution) not a period of transition," said Girgis Mahrous, a 29-year-old Tahrir protester. "It was a dirty game by the council. It divided the parties, punished the activists, and let security unravel to scare the majority away from the revolution."

Now the activists are trying to unify on a central demand — that the military surrender power to an interim national salvation government led by Nobel Peace laureate and liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei with four deputies from parts of the political spectrum, which would form a new unity government.

Putting forward names risks alienating many Egyptians who view ElBaradei with suspicion. Also the proposal does not include names from the far left or some Islamist groups. A large sector of the population of more than 80 million still supports the military's vision for elections.

But it also would be a concrete alternative to try to rally the public around. If it gains support, it could effectively render elections irrelevant.

The path back to Tahrir, epicenter of the anti-Mubarak uprising, was a wandering and confused one.

The revolution launched Jan. 25 was begun by a core of urban activists, joined later by the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist group that is Egypt's most organized political force. Together, they rallied millions from the general public against Mubarak.

Cracks opened even before Mubarak stepped down. During the 18 days of protests, some activists sought to draw up a list of demands on what would come after the president's ouster. When they polled the factions in Tahrir, however, hopes for a united vision were dashed.

After Mubarak's fall, the broader public went home, euphoric and largely welcoming the rule of the military, which promised to carry out the demands of the revolution.

A decisive moment came with a March referendum organized by the military.

The vote was on a military-drafted timetable for parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists backed a "yes" vote, eager for an election they expect to win. Most liberals and leftists opposed it, arguing it was too soon for elections and a constitution should be written first.

But they misjudged the street. Egyptians saw a "yes" vote as bringing stability and calm. The left was unable to present a clear alternative. The measure passed in a three-quarters landslide.

Since then, the generals and Islamists have claimed the referendum as a popular mandate for the military's rule and transition plan.

The coalition of youth groups and Islamists was shattered, and the youth groups themselves where thrown into confusion.

An attempt by revolutionaries to organize into a National Council briefly gained traction. Then it collapsed when some well-known politicians tried to impose themselves as leaders. It struck activists as the same disease as the Mubarak era — self-aggrandizing figures who end up propagating the same system.

"No one wanted anyone else to become leader. There was a feeling that no one wanted anyone to be better than them or boss them around anymore," said Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, a 31-year architect in Tahrir for Friday's protest.

She rejected the political parties as yet another competition between personalities.

"It was like a marriage I didn't want to get trapped into... I realized that the 30 years of Mubarak repression brought out the worst in us," she said.

Meanwhile, activist anger against the military grew. The generals put 12,000 civilians, including protesters, on military trial, and reports of torture emerged. The ruling council did next to nothing to dismantle Mubarak's regime or reform the security forces whose use of torture, bribery and oppression were central to Mubarak's police state.

But the connection to the public had been broken. A broad segment of Egyptians has been yearning for a return to stability amid a crashing economy, rising street crime and endless strikes. In the eyes of some, the protesters have seemed like nothing but troublemakers.

In one of the last major Tahrir protests before the current events, in July, activists and political parties fought over goals, leaders, and publicity for their groups in the square. The sit-in was violently broken up, and popular support for it was close to nil.

Meanwhile, those in the liberal, leftist, secular bloc who did join parties scrambled for a vote in which the Muslim Brotherhood was already far ahead, with a countrywide network and an experienced campaign machine. But efforts at coalitions between the flurry of new parties that arose crumbled.

Mustafa el-Naggar — founder of the Adl, or "Justice," Party, one of the most active and well-financed of the new parties — defends the decision to engage in the campaign.

"Some see political party work now as a betrayal of the revolution," he said in an interview before the current eruption of protests. "When they criticize me, they say Mustafa is a reformist who gave up on the revolution and is seeking a slice of the cake."

Founded by upper middle-class professionals from the anti-Mubarak protests, the Adl Party has avoided the "liberal" label, which sounds elitist and anti-religion to the public. Instead, it tries to appeal to a broader part of the public by touting a "middle way" of liberal Islam and liberal economic policies, combined with a youthful face.

With 200 candidates nationwide — mostly young people and unknowns — the party hopes to win around 20 seats to get into parliament. But the party, he says, can be a vehicle for building public support for the revolution's platform.

The party may not win now, but "we want to build a party that rules Egypt in 10 years."

But new parties have scrambled to find candidates. Some even turned to former members of Mubarak's ruling party popular in their district to boost their chances — at the cost of a real ideology of change, those who reject the campaign say.

The election will only recreate the "failed, weak and corrupt elite" of the Mubarak era, equally reliant on authoritarian power, said Ramy Shaath, a youth leader.

"Is this the kind of ruling elite that we want to depend on for the future?" he said. "Those in political life the past 30 years have become impotent and are incapable of dreaming that Egypt can be free."

Instead, activists addressed the street. They avoided the debate over Islam versus secularism that has characterized much of the election campaign, opting to rally people against the military by hitting issues that unite much of the population — anger that the military was not touching Mubarak's regime and seemed to be moving to keep power and sympathy over people killed in protests.

One group, the Revolutionary Socialists, galvanized workers, setting up 150 independent labor unions to replace official labor unions that were long just tools for maintaining Mubarak's rule. Neighborhood revolutionary committees organized volunteer services for residents.

The alliance of 24 groups to which Shaath belongs has worked in neighborhoods to bring democracy ideals to the street, with public forums, videos and exhibits retelling the story of the revolution, legal aid clinics and popular surveys on issues political parties have failed to address.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook continued to play a role in organizing like-minded people and providing a "democratic model" where open discussions take place, and details of injustice were highlighted for recruitment, said Rasha Abdulla, a communication professor at the American University in Cairo.

The goal is to create "a real power base, which one day can get to the top of running this country's affairs," Shaath said.

"It will take time but this is the newly born political system in Egypt."