Why Egypt’s Election is a Game-Changer — At the Expense of Tahrir Square

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Soldiers maintain order as people wait outside a polling station to cast their votes during parliamentary elections in Alexandria, November 28, 2011. (Photo: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany / Reuters)

The message of the historic Egyptian election, which began Monday with huge crowds turning out to vote in the protest-scarred cities of Cairo and Alexandra, is a simple one: Egypt’s immediate political future will not be written in Tahrir Square, or by the revolutionaries who last week lost 40 of their comrades to violence by the security forces. But nor will the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that eased out former President Hosni Mubarak in February, be able to sustain its claim to a monopoly on decision making over the transition process. By creating a democratically elected assembly — no matter how flawed by SCAF’s arcane election laws, and how limited its mandate may be according to the junta’s plan — the election process, which may take months to complete, creates a political voice whose legitimacy to speak for Egyptians trumps that of both SCAF and Tahrir Square. And that could profoundly change the power game in the coming months.

“Egypt is not Tahrir Square,” a SCAF spokesman warned last week, vowing that the elections would go ahead despite calls from the revolutionaries that they be postponed, and that the junta immediately cede power to a civilian “government of national salvation” acceptable to the parties on the Square. The revolutionaries had even offered the job of Prime Minister to Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and liberal presidential candidate, who had reportedly accepted and vowed to drop his presidential bid in order to take the job.

But Tahrir Square had no real job to offer, outside of the fevered political imagination stoked by the protesters’ brave and bloody battle to hold their ground, with each new casualty deepening the protesters’ sense of their own legitimacy and claim to write their country’s future. The brutal reality, however, was that most of Cairo had stayed on the sidelines for last week’s “second revolution,” and huge numbers of Cairenes turned out to participate enthusiastically in an election widely dismissed by those on the Square as irrelevant or counterproductive.

(PHOTOS: Egyptians vote in historic election.)

The election turnout, alone, challenges last week’s picture of Egypt’s future being decided in the outcome of a Tahrir Square vs. SCAF showdown, each claiming popular legitimacy for its own claim to direct the post-Mubarak transition. The military claimed to represent a “silent majority” and vowed not to yield to a “slogan chanting crowd.” Those leading the Tahrir demonstrations demanded the ouster of the junta, which has essentially maintained the repressive autocratic foundation of Mubarak’s regime, insisting that power be handed to a civilian government selected from opposition political forces, and that “now is not the time for elections.”

But there were other options on offer: Last week’s protests, in fact, began as a far larger, peaceful demonstration called by the Muslim Brotherhood against the junta’s plans to entrench their own power over any new elected government. A far smaller group — led by secular liberal groups competing with both SCAF and the Brotherhood to shape the post-Mubarak agenda — remained behind to reoccupy the Square, and press their demands for a handover to a handpicked civilian government. It was the authorities’ decision to violently evict this group that touched off the latest wave of clashes.

(PHOTOS: Inside the chaos at Tahrir Square.)

The Muslim Brotherhood came under fierce criticism from liberal groups for failing to support the renewed occupation of Tahrir Square, with even many members of the organization questioning the leadership’s reluctance to more forcefully challenge the junta’s violent crackdown. Liberal groups accused the Brotherhood of “opportunism” for insisting that the elections go ahead, largely because it is widely expected that the Islamist movement’s Freedom and Justice Party will be the big winner at the polls. But, of course, the Brotherhood could make the same complaint against the liberals’ demand to postpone a poll in which they’re likely to be marginalized: most of the liberal parties lack a clear political identity, much less the grassroots presence and organizational machinery that the Brotherhood has built in working class communities despite decades of repression.

The Brotherhood, of course, faces numerous challenges of its own (hardly representing a coherent political identity of its own), and it shares the liberals’ desire to end SCAF’s rule and limit the power of the military in a democratic Egypt. But it clearly maintains a very different idea of how to establish the basis of legitimacy for civilian rule. Self-serving though it may be (what politics isn’t?), the Brotherhood insists that a civilian government be chosen by the electorate, not by a political elite. And, arguably equally self-serving, the liberals want power handed to a government sanctified on Tahrir Square to oversee elections at some future date.

The military leadership, whose objective appears to be to evade civilian oversight and maintain a self-styled “guardianship” role over the transition and even over a future elected government, agreed last week in talks with the Brotherhood and other parties to bring forward presidential elections — and with them the prospect of a handover to civilian rule — to next spring. (The generals had originally planned to do this only in 2013.) Until then, it has asked the parties to accept a former Mubarak-appointed Prime Minister, Kamal Ganzouri, to head the government — an option furiously rejected by the demonstrators.

The parliament being chosen in the voting that began Monday is not envisaged, under SCAF’s plans, as a governing body, but instead as a constituent assembly, whose purpose will be simply to write a new constitution — under the “guidance” from, and with considerable built-in scope for interference by the military. But Brotherhood leaders have said in recent days that an elected parliament could become the focal point of a new effort to limit military rule. Despite their common rejection of the demand of the Square for an immediate handover to an unelected civilian government, the Brotherhood and the military hardly share the same agenda — conspiracy theories alleging the contrary, notwithstanding. It was precisely as a hedge against the prospect of an Islamist victory at the polls that the generals began, with liberal backing, writing the “supra constitutional” principles codifying its own de facto veto power that triggered last week’s protests.

And the Brotherhood, for its part, would clearly like to see power transferred to an elected civilian government. On that front, though, they may also be more patient than some of their liberal rivals — their decades of experience under the jackboot of the men in khaki taught the Islamists to play the long game and instilled an instinctive caution.

The vote that began Monday will once again eclipse the revolutionary parties of the Square, not simply because it went ahead with participation by masses more populous than those protesting on the streets, but because — as long as the election isn’t palpably stolen — it establishes an incontrovertible legitimacy for the resulting legislature. The generals can easily dismiss calls to hand over power to “a slogan chanting crowd,” but simply by virtue of being democratically elected, the new parliament could more forcefully push back against the military’s claim to power.

It was notable, by all accounts, that the crowd in the Square was dramatically smaller, by Sunday, than it has been during last week’s clashes. Even at its height, the “second revolution” was far smaller in scale than the February events that forced Mubarak out. Tahrir Square had failed to draw the mass support — and the leverage that would attach to having whole communities of working class people, and rank and file members of the military — joining in the effort to topple the junta.

And the caution that prompted the Brotherhood to hedge its bets on last week’s protests may have party reflected an awareness of the fact that the bulk of ordinary Egyptians appeared to have little appetite for a new season of turmoil. Opinion polls have found many Egyptians anxious about the post-Mubarak order, with high levels of support for the military even if accompanied by widespread disappointment over its stewardship. Still, the idea that the majority of Egyptians would be more comfortable with an unelected civilian government headed by ElBaradei, who like many of the liberal politicians remains a relative unknown, than they would be with SCAF will probably be demonstrated to have been wishful thinking once it becomes clear how liberal parties are polling.

So, while the Muslim Brotherhood may have lost support on the Square as a result of its reaction to last week’s protests, the likelihood is that it more than made up for that in the support of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians lining up to vote. And the Islamists appear to understand that it is the political movement capable of rallying and organizing the strongest mass support that will carry the day in a post-Mubarak politics. That’s a lesson many of those still holding Tahrir Square may yet learn at their own expense.