Egypt’s Revolutionaries Return to Tahrir Square, but Their Protests Are Flailing

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MOHAMMED ABED / AFP / Getty Images

A protester waves Egypt's national flag during a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 5, 2012

Exasperated by their failure to shape events in their country since last year’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Egyptian revolutionaries were back in Tahrir Square on Tuesday. The trigger for the latest wave of protests was Saturday’s conviction of Mubarak and a top aide over the killing of demonstrators during the uprising that began in January 2011 — the protesters claim that the verdict whitewashed many other regime figures, and they suspect that the life-imprisonment sentence will not stand. More than that, they are demanding the disqualification of Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik from the June 16 presidential-election runoff against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy. But more protests in the iconic square are unlikely to change the power dynamic that has sidelined the revolutionaries, who now find themselves repeating failed patterns and hoping for a different result.

For all their fervor, those on the streets are relatively isolated from the wider Egyptian population — and lacking a coherent strategy. Tahrir Square, after all, is not the nexus of power in Egypt, and those gathered there could stay put for weeks or months without changing the power arrangements around them. That’s a significant change from 18 months ago, when the very presence of crowds in the square signaled a rupture in the edifice of fear that had sustained Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, emboldening tens of thousands to join the protests demanding his ouster. But since Mubarak was wheeled offstage by the generals at the core of his regime, protest in the square has become commonplace, and its significance has changed. Indeed, reports suggest that a large proportion of Egyptians outside the square are growing increasingly intolerant of the economic disruptions created by endless protests.

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The new protests come on the eve of the June 16 presidential-election runoff between Morsy, who won the most votes in the first round, and Shafik. A choice between the Islamists and the old regime is hardly what the revolutionaries had in mind when they first took to the square, but they’ve failed to produce a winning alternative, and the runoff finds them once again scrambling for a strategy. “Not felool or the Brotherhood,” demonstrators in the square chanted on Tuesday, using the slang term for elements of the old regime in reference to Shafik. “The people want a President from the square!” Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, there’s little evidence to back their claim to speak for “the people.” Their numbers are dwarfed by the numbers of those who have turned out in two post-Mubarak elections to vote for the Brotherhood. And the surge of support for felool candidates reflects growing anxiety in Egyptian society over the lawlessness and chaos that have pervaded the post-Mubarak moment.

Voter turnout in the first round of presidential balloting was just 42%, compared with 54% for last year’s parliamentary polls swept by the Brotherhood and the rival Islamists of the Salafi movement. Morsy won 25% of the vote, closely trailed by Shafik with 24%. While fear and uncertainty drove the Shafik vote, the Brotherhood was able to rely on its strong grassroots organizational network — something the revolutionaries in the square have failed to replicate among ordinary Egyptians. Still, it was remarkable that leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi finished with 21% of the vote and liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh won 18% — that’s a solid 39% of voters who sought an alternative to the old regime and the Brotherhood. But adding those numbers together is an entirely hypothetical exercise, since the revolutionary camp has been hopelessly divided on political strategy.

Right now, some in the square are urging a boycott of the presidential runoff, as if this would somehow challenge its legitimacy. But would anyone even notice, or would the protesters simply be branded sore losers? Others press for nullification, hoping to persuade a majority of voters to spoil their ballots. But that would take a level of organization and the ability to engage with ordinary voters of which the revolutionaries have thus far proved incapable. Others, still, are urging that the country be ruled by a presidential council that includes the likes of Sabbahi and Futouh, while some want to offer Morsy support but in exchange for guarantees on a series of democratic demands. None of these options appear likely to seriously alter the power dynamic. And the demand to disqualify Shafik under a recent law preventing former regime officials from running for office would turn the runoff into a referendum on Morsy. Analyst Michael Waheed Hannah argues that the Brotherhood is more likely to lose a race with no opponent than it is to lose a race against a candidate bearing felool baggage.

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But the revolutionaries remain (politically) trapped in the square with a limited organization and power base, which limits their ability to shape events. They deride the Brotherhood’s conservatism and accuse it of duplicity and complicity with the regime, yet they appear to lack a strategy for competing effectively with the Islamists among the impoverished majority, let alone one for effecting a real shift in power in Egypt.

Despite the dramatic events of the past 18 months, there has in fact been no revolution in Egypt. A revolution by definition is a dramatic shift in power from one section of society to another, and the grim reality in Egypt is that the regime once headed by Mubarak remains very much in power, despite his ouster. Some of the personnel at the top have changed, but not the regime itself. The generals, however, have adroitly draped themselves in the rhetoric of revolution by embracing its slogans and claiming to be its stewards, even as their actions are clearly designed to demobilize the population and stabilize the status quo.

Indeed, for all the drama surrounding Mubarak’s trial and the presidential runoff, the fact remains that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces calls the shots. The generals made the decision to oust Mubarak and take power themselves in February 2011, and they made the decision to put Mubarak on trial — a ritual humiliation of the old regime even as the old authoritarian power structure in Egypt remained unchanged. The presidential election will matter only as much as the junta allows it to matter — the generals have already determined who can and can’t run, and it appears inclined to define what powers any new President would have.

The parliamentary and presidential elections haven’t been about transferring power from the military to politicians representing the will of the people, as much as potentially establishing a legitimate basis for those elected politicians to challenge the military for greater democratic control. They’re the start of a process, rather than its culmination, and it’s already clear that the Brotherhood is centering its own plans on pressing for authority to be transferred to elected institutions. Whether the generals have a strategy or are simply improvising, the reality is that they hold the reins of power and show no intention of transferring executive power to an elected government.

There may be epic struggles ahead to shape the post-Mubarak order, but they’re unlikely to be settled in Tahrir Square. The junta has proved adept at absorbing the impact of protests, occasionally tossing out the odd concession but also relying on the distance between the demonstrators and much of society around them to build resentment of the disruption and uncertainty and eventually clear the square. If they are to avoid that fate — again — those in the square need a strategy to connect with the mass of ordinary Egyptians who have not joined their protest.

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