Egypt’s interim rulers learn the democracy game

As Egypt's military ruling council is quickly discovering, Facebook polls and other tools of direct democracy often fall flat.

Egypt Christian clashes 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt Christian clashes 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not a week had lapsed since Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country's ruling body, announced the imminent end to the nightly curfew, before a strange poll appeared on its official Facebook page. The question put to the public was none other than “When would you like to see the curfew removed?”
Three options were offered: June 15, the date that had already been chosen and announced by the Council; "after the security situation stabilizes;" or "following the presidential elections in December 2011.” Over 63,000 people voted in the virtual poll and the results overwhelmingly favored the discretion of the military rulers. Nearly 72 percent supported waiting until security improves, while 20% said they wanted the curfew immediately lifted and only 8% were prepared to wait until December.
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The ex post facto opinion survey is only one example of the strange relationship between SCAF and the Egyptian people, in whose name they are supposed to be guiding the country into a democratic future. SACF, the cadre of generals who took over the running of Egypt after President Husni Mubarak was ousted last February, had made great efforts to be appear open and responsive, yet its operations and guiding philosophy are unknown.
"The military has been quite opaque since it started governing Egypt," Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, told The Media Line. "Sometimes it tries to be transparent, but nobody really knows what the military is thinking at any given time. There’s no consistent policy on anything."
Hamid said that the referendum held on March 19 to vote on Egypt's new constitution is the best example of the military's zigzagging.
"The referendum was on a limited number of constitutional articles, but a week or two later the military announced a different provisional constitution, which was not discussed in the referendum."
SCAF comprises 20 army generals, headed by Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, a 76-year-old former army commander-in-chief and defense minister.     
Muhammad Kadri Said, a retired major general and head of security studies at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he believed that the government genuinely wants to end the curfew as soon as possible but was forced to take the public sentiment into account.
The nightly curfew was imposed last January, three days after the popular uprising against Mubarak, exploded. Aimed at suppressing the protests, it originally lasted from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. and was gradually shortened to last only from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Mubarak long gone and Tahrir Square quiet, many Egyptians would prefer the curfew to remain in force as the country struggles with high crime rates.
"I think the Supreme Council will probably rescind its previous announcement," Said told The Media Line. "I personally believe the security situation is good, but the government must respond to the fears of the people."
Said explained that the extension of the curfew hurts Egypt's economy and sends a negative message to prospective tourists that the country is still unsafe. But the Egyptian public is still apprehensive about security, and overwhelmingly wishes to extend the curfew.  However, some Egyptians were angry at their government's apparent backtracking.
"You said you would lift the curfew on June 15, so why are you asking my opinion after you've already made your decision?" asked a Facebook commenter, Amina Zaki. "If you were to ask me from the start I would have told you I didn't want the curfew from the beginning of March!"
The Facebook poll isn’t the first time the SCAF has attempted to engage in direct democracy. In late May, it extended an open invitation through its Facebook page to "all the revolutionary youth coalitions" to "communicate" with a number of SCAF members. The youth were invited on June 1 to the Al-Jalaa' Theatre in Cairo, whose maximum capacity was 1,000 seats. Each youth group was requested to fax in a list containing no more than 10 names.
But this initiative, too, was ridiculed by some. Facebook commenter Adel Abdo congratulated the SCAF for using the on-line poll function, but was upset it wasn't used sooner.
"You could have used this function to discover our opinion on the suitable candidates for dialogue with the Military Council instead of the farce of 100 coalitions and 1,000 participants," Abdo wrote on the Facebook wall. "I hope you will conduct an opinion poll about who we appoint to speak on our behalf."