Analysis: Tahrir protesters lose in Egypt's elections

Flawless elections, big turnout, expected win for Islamists leave opposition adrift.

Egyptians voting 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Egyptians voting 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Thousands of protesters remained at Tahrir Square on Thursday, but their voices have been drowned out by the millions who persevered through long lines and often inclement weather to vote in the first round of Egyptian elections over the previous two days and voted overwhelmingly for Islamists.
Suspicious of the way Egypt’s transition to democracy is being managed and worried about the growing power of Islamists, the protesters had sought to delay the polling. But the turnout reached 70 percent in the nine provinces where polling was held, according to election officials. There were few instances of violence or irregularities reported.
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That leaves adrift the leaders of the protest movement that brought down President Hosni Mubarak last February and kept the spirit of revolution alive over the following months. For now, at least, the generals of the transitional government who staged the elections; and the Muslim Brotherhood along with the more extreme Salafists, whose early returns indicate garnered two-thirds of the vote, are on top.
“The Salafists emerged much stronger than anyone expected. It now seems likely the constitutional process will be determined by the two Islamic groups. It’s a conversation where the non-Islamists will have limited voice,” Eric Trager, a research fellow at the Washington Institute, told The Media Line. He was speaking from the Salafist Al-Nour Party Cairo headquarters.
Although the army remains widely respected in Egypt, its failure to bring back stability and revive the economy has seen Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the generals now ruling Egypt, stature decline in recent months. They were quick to take credit for the election success.
“When we plan, we execute and, at the end, we succeed,” Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, a SCAF member, said in a television interview on Tuesday. He compared the elections to when the army crossed the Suez Canal during the October War nearly 40 years ago in one of its rare victories against Israel. “The armed forces pulled off this election like they pulled off the crossing in 1973.”
Egypt state-controlled media portrayed the military as the guardians of democracy, with front-page pictures showing troops protecting polling centers and soldiers carrying the elderly to the election ballots. In fact, the election provided rare relief from political chaos and prompted the Egyptian stock exchange’s benchmark index to rally more than 6% as of Wednesday.
Islamic groups, which had been late in joining the anti-Mubarak rallies but have been the main beneficiaries of the new political era, also lauded the elections. "Millions of Egyptians voted because they wanted a strong, democratic Parliament," Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said on Tuesday.
For a while it looked like the opposition protesters – young, educated, urban with a secular outlook – might prevail. Angered by a SCAF proposal to limit the constitutional authority of future governments over the army, protesters turned out en mass to Tahrir Square a week before the election. The army responded severely, attacking demonstrators and leaving 43 killed.
The crackdown backfired. Upset by the violence, the army-appointed civilian cabinet to step down and, under pressure, SCAF agreed to move up the transition to full civilian rule to July 2012 from 2013.But even as they failed to dislodge the demonstrators, the generals with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, insisted the elections would go ahead as planned.
While they have enjoyed wide attention and praise abroad, at home the protesters have long lost wide public support. Egyptians were glad to see Mubarak go and are looking forward to a new era of wider freedoms and less corruption, but by a wide majority they oppose the demonstrations and strikes that have gone on, according to a Gallup Poll released on Tuesday.
Asked whether they supported the protesters who called for the president to step down back in January and February, some 75% of Egyptians said yes in a September survey. But asked what they thought about the “continued protests in Egypt,” 84% termed them a “bad thing for the country.” In fact, as far back as June, more than eight in 10 Egyptians opposed the perpetual protests.
“If you talk to people at Tahrir Square, you hear a lot of anger at the Muslim Brotherhood. But it has become clear that Tahrir Square isn’t Cairo and Cairo isn’t Egypt,” said Trager of the Washington Institute.
Egyptians have good reason to be concerned. The protests and strikes have contributed to a deteriorating economy as foreign investors and tourists stay away from a country they perceive as politically unstable and risky to visit. 
The International Monetary Fund forecasts the economy will grow an anemic 1.2% this year, down from 5.1% in 2010 while inflation exceeds 11%. Unemployment reached 11.9% in the third quarter, compared with 8.9% a year earlier. On Tuesday, the Egyptian pound traded at its lowest against the dollar in seven years.
The Gallup Poll also found that Egyptians are increasingly pessimistic about the fruits of revolution. In September, only 51% said they expect their personal conditions to improve in the post-Mubarak era, down from 72% last June. The proportion who said they would grow worse more than doubled to 21% from 9%, according to the poll.
While SCAF is held partly responsible by failing to crack down on sectarian violence and street crime and engaging in heavy-handed crackdowns of protesters, many Egyptians see the opposition itself as responsible, too. At Tahrir Square, protesters battled with street vendors on Tuesday night, leaving 80 injured.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House, said the Tahrir Square protesters have been hurt by the coverage of demonstrations by the state-controlled media that has played on people’s concern about security. That has encouraged them to support the military at all costs.
“For some people hearing criticism of the army is quite scary. They see what happened in Iraq,” she told The Media Line, referring the decision by the US after occupying Iraq in 2003 to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, a move that created years of killing and chaos.
But, it doesn’t mean support for SCAF is deep. “I‘m pretty surprised that it [the elections] went so smoothly, but I don’t think participating in the elections doesn’t mean saying yes to the military,” she said.
The generals still have a fight ahead of them over their roadmap for democracy. Egyptians are being asked to participate in a series of elections over the next few months that will test their willingness to vote and force SCAF to address increasingly difficult questions about the transition to democracy and the army’s role in it.
Smelling victory, the Muslim Brotherhood is already asking for powers to be handed over to a parliament it expects to control faster than SCAF had envisioned.
In an article published on Tuesday, FJP’s Erian wrote that “millions of Egyptians cannot accept to go to the polls and elect a parliament that has no authority.” He called on SCAF to announce that parliament would have “the higher say in forming a government,” a power the generals had expected to retain until a new constitution is written.
“It is increasingly unclear whether the military wants to surrender power to elected officials soon enough to satisfy the expectations of the Egyptian population,” Marina Ottaway, a research at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace, said in an on-line Q&A. “The most difficult time in the Egyptian transition is still ahead.”