Dispatch from Tahrir: For Egypt’s Liberals, Election Is a Hard Vote to Swallow

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Protestors carry a giant Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square during a mass rally on November 25, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.

It’s been a topsy-turvy few days for the Tahrir Square youths who brought down Egypt’s dictatorship at the height of the Arab Spring. Last week, they returned to the square to save the revolution from being hijacked by the military generals currently running the country: the new wave of demonstrations — some call them ‘Tahrir II’ — forced the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to shorten the timetable in which it will hand power to a civilian government. But this week, there are fears the revolutionaries will themselves be a minority in that government.

(PHOTOS: Amid turmoil, Egypt votes.)

Results of the first round of voting for parliament, to be announced Friday, are expected to show that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FPJ) got around 40% of the vote, and a grouping of ultra-conservative Salafis led by the Nour Party got 20%. The group that most resembles the leaders of the revolution, a constellation of mostly liberal-secular parties called the Egyptian Block, is believed to have got 20%.

Although the FPJ and Nour are both Islamist parties, they are hardly natural allies: the Brotherhood is reformist and moderate, whereas Salafis are radical and often espouse a severe interpretation of Islam. Nonetheless, many secular groups believe the two will collaborate in the new parliament to form a majority. And since one of the parliament’s main tasks will be to write a new constitution, the fear is that an FJP-Nour alliance will infuse it with Islamic tenets.

There are two rounds remaining, and final results will not be known until mid-January. But the first round, covering major urban centers like Cairo and Alexandria, represented the liberals’ best chance of making a strong showing. Instead, the Islamists now have momentum on their side and could do even better in the second and third rounds.

This has left many liberals with a sour taste in the mouth. Selma abu Aldahab, a well-known blogger and Tahrir Square veteran, says the election — and indeed the entire political process — is “illegitimate and irrelevant” because it is being conducted under SCAF rule. Hossam Hamlawy, who describes himself as a ‘revolutionary socialist’, takes a similar view. “Elections don’t automatically equal democracy,” he says. “Even if you get a parliament of saints and prophets, it doesn’t make a difference as long as SCAF is in charge.”

(PHOTOS: Inside the battle at Tahrir Square.)

Hamlawy says he would “prefer to settle the battle [with SCAF] in the street, and then have elections.” Other liberals agree that even if they do poorly in the elections, they can return to Tahrir Square to get what they want. “I see no reason demonstrations can’t happen when there is a parliament,” says Shahir George Ishaq of the Egypt Freedom Party. “If those who represent the revolution get less than a third of the seats, then you have other tools.”

Other liberals take a more philosophical view. Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 group that helped to spark the revolution in January, says the election results should be respected. If revolutionaries don’t get into parliament, they can still play a constructive role as its unofficial conscience-keeper. “We will monitor the activities of parliament, and keep it honest,” he says. Wael Nawarra, a prominent liberal activist, goes farther, arguing that the revolutionaries should set aside any bitterness over the vote and help the Islamists rule. “Sitting around and hoping that they fail and impeding them won’t help anybody,” he says. “We should have a sense of what is really important: getting the country back on track.”

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