Egypt and the Limits of Protest

As thousands of Egyptian antigovernment protesters packed the capital’s central Tahrir Square early Wednesday, Mohammed el-Baltagi retreated to his office in a quiet villa on Misr wel-Sudan Street. The Muslim Brotherhood’s general-secretary in Cairo gathered with young activists from other groups to plot the next moves in the current standoff against the country’s military-backed regime.

This was a bit like old times. A physician in his late 40s, Mr. Baltagi was the only member of the powerful Islamist group on the 10-person revolutionary steering committee during last year’s popular uprising. With Egypt in the midst of a new political battle, he has reached back out to the student activists who spearheaded the protests against Hosni Mubarak. The military carried out a power grab ahead of last weekend’s presidential elections, dissolving an elected parliament and claiming virtually all constitutional authority for the indefinite future. Cairo’s streets are still the only check on autocracy.


Supporters of Mohamed Morsi during a rally against the military council at Tahrir square in Cairo on Wednesday.

«It goes without saying,» says Mr. Baltagi, «that the military’s silly decisions» brought Egypt’s opposition back together. The support of secular, pro-democracy Egyptians helped swing last weekend’s presidential election to Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, he added. This is news insofar as the Brotherhood rarely acknowledges political debts. According to aggregate poll tallies, Mr. Morsi beat the former Mubarak-era prime minister, Ahmed Shafik.

The military-led regime has time on its side. Not so the leaders of the renewed popular push in Tahrir. Egyptians are tired of 16 months of political chaos, and the opposition hasn’t proven it’s able to stay united for long.

The Brotherhood’s dictatorial and power-hungry tendencies have alienated friends and made them enemies. Several times in the past year, the group tried to strike its own deals with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, and ended up with nothing. «They got greedy and were eaten alive by the SCAF,» says Mohammed Kassas, a former young activist in the Brotherhood who broke with them to create a moderate Islamist movement, Egyptian Current.

But the prospect of the old regime’s survival by constitutional fiat or a Shafik victory has focused minds. Moaz Abdel Karim, who also helped form the Current, was surprised to find himself Wednesday back inside a Brotherhood office working with them. «We have no other choice,» he said sheepishly, before meeting Mr. Baltagi. «If Shafik comes to power, we will be sent back to jail.»

Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 youth movement, held his nose and voted for Mr. Morsi. Starting with Tuesday night’s rally, he joined the Islamists back in Tahrir Square. «We still believe there is maybe a hope in the Muslim Brotherhood,» he says, without conviction.

The Brotherhood, a hierarchical secret society founded in 1928, now promises to share power through a coalition government. The failure of Egypt’s Islamists to work with secular groups other than in the streets has made it easier for the Egyptian «deep state» to divide and hold on. Most of the blame for this stillborn transition belongs with the military.

As much as the Brotherhood’s culture and politics rankles other political parties, only it has the discipline and organization to challenge the regime. Its machine got out the votes for Mr. Morsi, surprising observers. Just as impressive was the initiative to protect the ballots.

At each of Egypt’s 13,000-odd polling stations, a Brotherhood representative sent back confirmed voting tallies before they were transferred to the central election office. The Brotherhood live-tweeted these results. Early Monday morning, Mr. Morsi declared victory. Caught flat-footed, the Shafik campaign claimed a day later that its man had won, but the established story line was the Brotherhood’s win.

As the votes came in, Brotherhood leaders were also focused on the military’s new constitutional powers, which were announced moments after the polls closed, and made plans to mobilize in Tahrir in less than 48 hours.

So far, the crowds are predominantly Brotherhood supporters: religiously conservative families bused in from the provinces, women covered in veils or full niqabs, and a scattering of hardcore-Islamist Salafists. Credit the machine again.

Attitudes toward the military, which was praised last year for easing Mr. Mubarak out, have hardened. The past week brought home how little last year’s so-called revolution changed: The old power structures are firmly in place—only the Mubarak family is gone. «We have enemies and the enemies are running the country,» the charismatic Salafist leader, Hazen Abu Ismail, told the crowd in Tahrir on Tuesday. A chant went up: «SCAF, Irhal! Irhal!» (SCAF, Go! Go!) A year ago, «Irhal!» was directed at Mr. Mubarak.

The Brotherhood has the numbers in the street but few options. Vice versa for the SCAF.

As Tuesday’s rally began, a state-run news agency reported that Mr. Mubarak was «clinically dead» after a stroke. This story, later denied, conveniently distracted from the action beginning in Tahrir Square.

The announcement of an official winner of the presidential election, originally due on Thursday, was indefinitely delayed on Wednesday night here, supposedly to investigate fraud claims—all the better for the regime to see if the protests hold up. Many Egyptians want their normal lives back. Cairo taxi drivers are again cursing the demonstrators for snarling traffic: These are the Shafik voters.

If the SCAF declares Mr. Shafik the victor, the scenes in Tahrir will probably get ugly. But will the street settle for a Morsi presidency without the other demands to restore parliament and rescind the military’s constitutional decree? The military could anoint him without conceding any real power. He would have no authority, but all the responsibility—a recipe for failure. «The SCAF plays it very well,» says Salafist politician Nader Bakar, «like a chess game.»

The limitations of popular mobilization have been made clear in the last year in Egypt. Yet the Brotherhood and its allies of convenience have one good move against Egypt’s deep state: to show that a broad national consensus exists to force it to negotiate a deal on a transfer to democracy. This is the best outcome available here, and the hardest to realize.


Matt Kaminski: Egypt and the Limits of Protest –

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