Last Monday I headed to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests which brought down strongman Hosni Mubarak. I was driven by a sense of nostalgia for the 25 January 2011 revolution, an all inclusive movement that united pro-reform activists from across cultural and religious divides against the oppressive regime.
It was hard to believe that eighteen months later, the country could be so polarisedafter a presidential vote that pitted Mohamed Morsi, a conservative Islamist, against Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and hence, a military man. The Islamist / secular divide is not a new one in Egypt, indeed it has defined politics in this country for decades.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for a long time the country’s largest and most organised opposition group, had been arginalisedand under Mubarak they were barred from engaging in politics. The January 2011 mass uprising changed all that. Not only did it give legitimacy to the once outlawed Islamist group but it also transformed the movement into a key player in Egyptian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood, together with the ultra-conservative salafists movement, emerged as the winners in Egypt’s first free and fair legislative elections held last year, a victory that allowed the Islamist bloc dominance in parliament.
The sudden rise to power of the Islamists reflected their wide popularity especially from within the lower ranks of society. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the Muslim Brotherhood had for years filled the vacuum left by the former government, extending charity services to society’s downtrodden and underprivileged in some of the most deprived neighborhoods.
These included building schools and hospitals for the poor, and giving monthly financial handouts for unemployed youths from disadvantaged families. Their victory in the parliamentary election was a confidence booster for the Islamists who, instead of treading cautiously through the minefield of Egyptian politics, drove recklessly ahead at full-speed. In the process they lost the hearts and minds of many of their former supporters. Mistakes committed by the group in the transitional period were amplified by a vicious media campaign targeting the Islamists in recent months. These factors combined to undermine the MB’s popularity and in some cases even increase hostility towards them. While many members of the ‘revolutionary youth’ camp did vote for the MB candidate in the run-off election, it was not because they thought Morsi represented their revolution, but rather because they believed he was the lesser of two evils. A young activist told me that he thought Shafiq was as far from the youth driven revolution as anyone could get. He’s right, of course. Young activists like Gigi Ibrahim and Google executive Wael Ghoneim felt they had no choice but to give Morsi their vote. Ibrahim and Ghoneim did however later indicate in their tweets that if Morsi did win the election, they would both immediately join the opposition camp.
Filmmaker Khaled Yousef, a liberal who invalidated his vote because he was convinced that neither candidate was worthy of it, reminded us that “the MB betrayed the revolution when they chose to align themselves with the military dictatorship”. Yousef has also accused the Brotherhood of trying to exercise monopoly over the drafting of the constitution and of reneging on an earlier promise not to field a presidential candidate. Appearing on a talk show on one of the independent channels this week, he recalled that Islamist MPs had turned a blind eye to the violent protests at Mohamed Mahmoud, “they insisted the activists were not revolutionaries but thugs and criminals” he angrily stated. Several Brotherhood leaders have in recent days urged the secularists to unify ranks with them ‘to save Egypt from the throes of military dictatorship’. But so far the group has failed to rally support behind it. As tensions escalate, the MB also fear a renewed crackdown on members of their group should Shafiq win the election.
The group has called for another ‘million people protest’ for Friday in Tahrir Square to reject the recent supplementary constitutional amendments introduced last week by the military council. The amendments give the military sweeping legislative and budgetary powers, and analysts fear they will severely limit the powers of the next president. The MB also plans to challenge the recent decision by the High Constitutional Court to dissolve parliament. It is expected that other revolutionary forces will join Friday’s protest and that a showdown with the military is now imminent. But unlike last year’s uprising, there is now little solidarity among the activists and the lack of cohesion and unity can only play into the hands of the military. Clearly, the SCAF is betting on that.