To vote, or not to vote

Many factions within the Egyptian opposition are considering running in the next elections, despite their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the constitution.

By OMER MATTA
January 9, 2013 12:15
cairo coffee 521

cairo coffee 521. (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah)

 
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These days Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square remains fairly quiet. Aside from a few hundred people camped out in several dozen tents, with an occasional handful of Nasserists gathered around the square’s makeshift “revolution museum,” life in Egypt appears more and more to have entered into its post-revolutionary phase.

Made up of a series of handwritten manifestos and photos of dead martyrs strewn up on cloths hanging from several of the square’s many tents, this museum is overshadowed by its massive state counterpart (the Egyptian Museum) located just several blocks away.

Occasionally, a keynote speaker can be found addressing a group of people, who may or may not be listening, but more often than not are doing so while attending to their stands vending tea, or local pasta or meat dishes. The vendors have recently been receiving considerably less business.

Less than two weeks after President Mohamed Morsi signed the country’s controversial constitution into law on December 26, anger in the Egyptian street over the state of the nation’s politics seems to have died down almost as quickly as it began back in January 2011. The burned-out remnants of the former National Democratic Party headquarters that dominate downtown Cairo’s skyline seems to be one of the few major reminders about the extent of the fury that once engulfed Tahrir Square.

Not that there aren’t any reminders about the measures that have been taken to repress this fury. Despite the recent slowdown in popular protest, just getting to the square can sometimes still be difficult, even for those living just several blocks away. Huge concrete walls recently erected in front of the American Embassy and on Qasr al- Ainy street, one of the main thoroughfares leading into the square, have blocked off traffic and made entering Tahrir from the city’s south nearly impossible. This pushes traffic north, which, when combined with Cairo’s already congested streets, makes for a painfully long cab ride. It’s usually faster just to walk.

The tactics used by Egypt’s security forces over the last year to deflect protesters, in the form of constructing concrete walls in front of major hot spots, began after the events of Muhammad Mahmud St., which saw protesters and police clash violently outside the country’s Ministry of the Interior.

Since then, 11 of these walls have been built throughout downtown, in addition to a number of smaller barbed wire checkpoints set up on various streets.



This method of dealing with civil disobedience seems to mimic the strategy adopted by Egypt’s current leadership when dealing with political opposition which is, rather than confront it head on, simply to insulate oneself from it and wait for it to die down. With only a 32 percent turnout rate of eligible voters participating in the referendum on the proposed constitution, this process seems to have already begun even before the constitution was ratified, passed and signed into law.

A spokesman for one of Egypt’s opposition parties, when asked why he thought the referendum had passed, and whether or not Egypt had effectively split into Islamist and non-Islamist camps, responded by saying that “many of those who voted ‘yes’ did not do so because they were necessarily Islamist supporters, but rather because they wanted stability. Much of the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafi propaganda that came out in support of the referendum had to do with voting on the side of stability.”

During the Mubarak regime, Egyptians were often stereotyped by other Arabs, and oftentimes themselves, as being apathetic when it came to politics. This obviously changed with the outbreak of the January 25th revolution; however, as the country began to move into its transitionary phase and revolutionaries had to switch from casting stones to running campaigns, it became clear that there was still much work to be done in motivating the average citizen, who had spent decades living under a brutal, stagnant dictatorship, to mobilize and participate in the nation’s politics.

This slice of the population has sometimes been jokingly referred to as Hizb al- Kanaba or party of the couch, reflecting their refusal to leave their living rooms and involve themselves in the country’s revolution.

Motivating this sector of society, many of whom are young, has been, and will continue to be one of the biggest problems plaguing Egypt’s current opposition.

The reasons behind a person’s refusal to participate in politics can be many; however, this time around, it is not necessarily apathy, but rather weariness that has caused many to either not participate, or vote in favor of the status quo.

When one mentions Egypt’s opposition, one is generally referring to the National Salvation Front (NSF), an umbrella organization created in the wake of Morsi’s November 22nd Constitutional Declaration, meant to co-ordinate the activities of Egypt’s various secular opposition movements.

Created by Muhammad El-Baradei, former General Director of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and current leader of the Hizb al-Dostour (Constitution) party, the group is not a political party itself, but has attracted such names as Hamdin Sabahi, leader of Egypt’s Popular Current movement, former Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Mousa, in addition to a number of smaller groups, such as the Free Egyptians Party, New Wafd Party, Dignity Party and others.

The revolution began as a response to decades of dictatorship, and also what this brought in the way of income inequality, unemployment and lack of opportunity for much of the nation’s youth. Nearly two years after the revolution, many Egyptians have unfortunately seen their economic lot in life deteriorate further, with tourism grinding to a halt and foreign investment drying up, forcing the government to borrow money and go into debt. This has brought in its wake grinding austerity measures.

Two years later, many Egyptians do not see the revolution as the answer to their economic problems, but rather that which is perpetuating them.

For parties within the NSF, who lost big in both Egypt’s parliamentary/ presidential elections, and in the drafting of the constitution, this means that continuing to hold out and refrain from engaging in dialogue in a way that fosters more political deadlock could, in fact, further weaken their position in the eyes of many Egyptians.

This of course, presents a whole host of new problems for the opposition and how it seeks to define itself in the coming months.

The new constitution calls for elections for the lower house of parliament, known as the House of Representatives, which was dissolved in June 2012 by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to be held within the next two months. However, seeing as the NSF views the constitution as having granted dictatorial powers to the president, with its legitimacy further marred by numerous irregularities and instances of rigging, taking part in these elections would mean compromising their stance regarding the document, and, to a certain extent, recognizing its legitimacy, even tacitly.

The division and confusion within the ranks of Egypt’s opposition and network of activists can perhaps also help explain why protesters have not continued to take to the streets in the aftermath of the nation’s referendum.

Sitting in a café in downtown Cairo, just several blocks from the quiescent Tahrir Square, I spoke with a number of young activists who had taken part in the revolution in its various stages. Home to a close-knit community of artists, musicians, actors and political enthusiasts, downtown Cairo has always been a refuge for Egypt’s more progressive, left-leaning citizenry.

Hidden between fast-food chains, chic cafés and a number of posh clothing stores, it is not uncommon in this part of town to find anarchist graffiti tagged next to massive murals cascading down the walls of a number of buildings, all paying tribute to the ideals of the revolution and those who have died defending it. This stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of Cairo, where reminders to “consult in God” are more likely to be found painted on city walls than anything else.

One young activist, Ahmed, although asserting that he did not recognize the legitimacy of the constitution, states that he supported the notion of NSF parties participating in the upcoming elections for pragmatic reasons. “Going forward, there needs to be a balance of power in Egyptian politics,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “It doesn’t make sense for the elections to be dominated by one political faction. The NSF has emerged as a capable opposition movement that can present the kind of united front needed to confront the nation’s Islamists, and we should allow them the opportunity to do so,” he concludes.

The need for a united front has become evident to the NSF’s leaders as well. Although the organization itself is not considering running as one political party, reports have circulated claiming that a possible merger may occur between Hizb al-Dostour, the Free Egyptians Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Justice Party.

However, the divide between the opposition’s leadership and those at its grassroots level also presents another dimension of division that may be hard to overcome before the next elections. A young activist named Muhammad tells The Report that “the parties within the NSF do not represent the street, and never involved themselves in the revolution until recently. Whether or not they decide to run in the next elections will not make a difference, as they will not be able to mobilize a large enough number of supporters to win enough seats in parliament to effect change politically.”

The 32 percent turnout rate for the referendum, which passed with 64 percent in favor, can be seen as a testament to the extent to which these claims are true. Furthermore, the thoughts echoed by this young activist reflect a larger problem plaguing the NSF, one that its Islamist opponents are keen to repeat as often as possible. That is that much of Egypt’s current opposition is viewed by large swaths of society as having had long-standing ties with elements of the former Mubarak regime, which, in this day and age, is political poison for anyone trying to run a campaign.

The debate rages on. I spoke with several opposition spokesmen who confirmed that many parties within the NSF were considering running in the next elections, despite their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the constitution. They clarified that doing so would be contingent upon the government meeting a series of conditions to ensure the free and fair nature of these elections, such as organizing for international monitors and opposition members to be present at polling stations, in addition to obtaining a guarantee from Egypt’s High Judges Court to oversee the voting process.

However, although the country’s fault lines appear to be becoming more clear, the extent to which this will lead to the establishment of the kinds of institutions necessary to create a functioning democracy are still yet to be seen.

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