Tahrir is not Egypt — and neither are the generals

Tony Karon writes: The message of the historic Egyptian election, which began Monday with huge crowds turning out to vote in the protest-scarred cities of Cairo and Alexandra, is a simple one: Egypt’s immediate political future will not be written in Tahrir Square, or by the revolutionaries who last week lost 40 of their comrades to violence by the security forces. But nor will the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that eased out former President Hosni Mubarak in February, be able to sustain its claim to a monopoly on decision making over the transition process. By creating a democratically elected assembly — no matter how flawed by SCAF’s arcane election laws, and how limited its mandate may be according to the junta’s plan — the election process, which may take months to complete, creates a political voice whose legitimacy to speak for Egyptians trumps that of both SCAF and Tahrir Square. And that could profoundly change the power game in the coming months.

“Egypt is not Tahrir Square,” a SCAF spokesman warned last week, vowing that the elections would go ahead despite calls from the revolutionaries that they be postponed, and that the junta immediately cede power to a civilian “government of national salvation” acceptable to the parties on the Square. The revolutionaries had even offered the job of Prime Minister to Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and liberal presidential candidate, who had reportedly accepted and vowed to drop his presidential bid in order to take the job.

But Tahrir Square had no real job to offer, outside of the fevered political imagination stoked by the protesters’ brave and bloody battle to hold their ground, with each new casualty deepening the protesters’ sense of their own legitimacy and claim to write their country’s future. The brutal reality, however, was that most of Cairo had stayed on the sidelines for last week’s “second revolution,” and huge numbers of Cairenes turned out to participate enthusiastically in an election widely dismissed by those on the Square as irrelevant or counterproductive.

The election turnout, alone, challenges last week’s picture of Egypt’s future being decided in the outcome of a Tahrir Square vs. SCAF showdown, each claiming popular legitimacy for its own claim to direct the post-Mubarak transition. The military claimed to represent a “silent majority” and vowed not to yield to a “slogan chanting crowd.” Those leading the Tahrir demonstrations demanded the ouster of the junta, which has essentially maintained the repressive autocratic foundation of Mubarak’s regime, insisting that power be handed to a civilian government selected from opposition political forces, and that “now is not the time for elections.”

But there were other options on offer: Last week’s protests, in fact, began as a far larger, peaceful demonstration called by the Muslim Brotherhood against the junta’s plans to entrench their own power over any new elected government. A far smaller group — led by secular liberal groups competing with both SCAF and the Brotherhood to shape the post-Mubarak agenda — remained behind to reoccupy the Square, and press their demands for a handover to a handpicked civilian government. It was the authorities’ decision to violently evict this group that touched off the latest wave of clashes.

The Muslim Brotherhood came under fierce criticism from liberal groups for failing to support the renewed occupation of Tahrir Square, with even many members of the organization questioning the leadership’s reluctance to more forcefully challenge the junta’s violent crackdown. Liberal groups accused the Brotherhood of “opportunism” for insisting that the elections go ahead, largely because it is widely expected that the Islamist movement’s Freedom and Justice Party will be the big winner at the polls. But, of course, the Brotherhood could make the same complaint against the liberals’ demand to postpone a poll in which they’re likely to be marginalized: most of the liberal parties lack a clear political identity, much less the grassroots presence and organizational machinery that the Brotherhood has built in working class communities despite decades of repression.

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