Will Elections Mean The End Of Tahrir?


In the first half of 2011 New Matilda spoke with a former member of the Obama Campaign team living in Egypt about his predictions for the parliamentary elections. Even early on he knew the Islamists would dominate. He had worked in formal, elite politics. There is something resembling a science to it.

Now Egypt seems on track to elect a new president and his predictions may still be relevant. This being said, much of the drama has been removed from the race by the elimination of first one, then another 10 candidates by the Election Authority.

Meanwhile, the leaderless hive mind that ran Tahrir so efficiently and impressively on so few resources has not proven as effective at forcing change in the realm of what some would call "real" politics. They barely made a scratch in the parliamentary elections and now, in a contest where name recognition is everything, and experience is demanded, many of the same old creeps have come creeping back.

Among those banned from participating were Ayman Noor, a liberal Member of Parliament. Perhaps the best hope from the point of view of liberal Egyptians, he was the first excluded from the race on the basis of previous (and possibly dodgy) charges. The charges related to his campaign in the (rigged) 2005 presidential elections, in which he officially finished second with 7 per cent of the vote.

Khairat El-Shater, businessman and deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was to run as the organisation’s official candidate. Shater only scored 1.7 on a recent poll by the Ahram Institute, having joined late, contradicting previous statements that he wouldn’t run and the Brotherhood would not field a candidate.

However, with the organisational muscle of the Brotherhood behind him he could have posed a threat. That was until he was disqualified on a similar basis to that of Ayman Noor.

That muscle is now is set to work for Mohammad Morsy, who has been described as the Brotherhood’s "backup" candidate. There are signs, such as Shater and Musri’s poor poll performances, that the Brotherhood’s support base may not be as loyal in these elections as they were in the parliamentary elections.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail is the candidate from the fundamentalist Salafi movement, who have remained ideologically hostile to democracy even while participating in it. He came in second in the poll and was considered a front-runner before his candidacy was revoked on the basis that his mother had US citizenship, making him ineligible.

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right hand man and head spy was by far the most notable inclusion from an Australian point of view: he is the man who Mamdouh Habib alleges oversaw and participated in the torture he was subjected to during his six months of captivity in Egypt, prior to his transfer to Guantanamo Bay.

Frighteningly, Suleiman had also been considered a front-runner. While Habib is certainly not Suleiman’s only accuser, and there are many who despise him, there are a significant number of people who resent the revolution and the disruption it has brought into their lives. A taxi driver called Abdo driver told me he was voting for Suleiman (the second cabbie in a week to say so). When I asked why, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a very small roll of notes. People like Abdo want a strong man so their lives can get back to normal. Suleiman fits the bill and if he were to become President, a period of very brutal counter-revolution could ensue. Suleiman supporters are likely to transfer their support to either Ahmed Shafik or Amr Moussa.

Shafik is a former Air-force Marshal Parliamentarian and long-time NDP stooge, appointed as Prime Minister in the last days of the Mubarak presidency and then forced from office a few weeks later, only to then be among the first to declare his intention of running for the presidency. If he is the main beneficiary of Suleiman’s withdrawal he could be a real contender.

Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former foreign minister and the former head of the Arab league, has international prominence that gives him some standing. He is seen as having less of an association with the Mubarak regime, but is generally considered a safe choice from SCAF’s position. He has been considered by many as the favourite since the fall of the Mubarak regime and maintains this status.

At the moment it seems as though Moussa’s main challenger, the man most likely to go into the second round with him (and yes, all the candidates are men) will be Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Secretary general of the Arab Medical Union and former member of the guidance bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fotouh is a reformer who called for the Brotherhood to take a more overtly civil and democratic approach, including internal elections, then later split from the Brotherhood. He is thought to have an attitude that could be compared to that of the so far moderate and pluralist Enehadda (renaissance) party, which triumphed in Tunisia’s first poll. Fotoh is probably the best shot the revolutionaries have. He has condemned military trials for civilians (Fotouh himself spent more than five years as a political prisoner under Mubarak) and other army offences. He has questioned Egypt’s reliance on American aid and promised to open the Rafah border crossing. What’s more he is reported to have promised that, if elected, he will take someone under the age of 45 as Vice-President.

One young man who some hope would be selected for this post is Khaled Ali. The 40 year old progressive is former head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, and a founding member of Hisham Mubarak Law Center. He has strong links to the workers movement as well as to activists in the Tahrir orbit. He has no real renown beyond these circles, and is not generally thought of as having a real chance in terms of making it to the second round on his own steam. If he, or someone like him, were taken as a running mate by Fotouh, it could be a huge win for the revolutionaries (and a smart move for Fotouh).

One favoured by many progressives is a former Nasserist called Hamdeen Sabahi, famous for publicly challenging former President Sadat for bringing the neo-liberal program to Egypt. Many cite Sadat’s policies as having caused the massive inequality and poverty that was such a huge motive for last years revolution.

In the end, however, the best that the square can really hope for is a final choice between an Islamist (however moderate) and a former regime crony. The spirit of Tahrir is yet to gain all but the smallest of footholds in formal politics in Egypt. This is in no small part because of a conscious choice made by revolutionaries to stay outside the dirty mechanics of a corrupt state. Unfortunately it means that the most vital and interesting collective voice in the country is being muffled, sidelined and worse, co-opted.

This of course, will be a familiar story for those who have been following the protests at Occupy Wall St, the Syntagma Square protests, and other similar movements around the world. It raises important questions, about whether and how the primal democracy these movements represent can be honed into lasting political forces without destroying their inherent character.

This will be the most important question for the revolutionaries in Tahrir, and those around the world who take inspiration from them to grapple with over the coming years, if they want the current wave of protest to be remembered as more than a kind of political festival, Woodstock without music.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.