Egypt's Intense Election Eve
Residents of Cairo’s Darb al-Ahmar neighborhood have gathered at a streetside café on a late October Friday night to get their first glimpse of a political party founded by revolutionary activists. Men play backgammon and sip from their glasses of tea as members of al-‘Adl, one of 35 new parties vying for a role in Egypt’s next government, rush to set up a table and microphone at the café entrance. The first round of parliamentary elections, scheduled to commence November 28, is only a month away, but the campaign season has just begun. In the eight months since widespread demonstrations and Egypt’s military leadership forced former President Husni Mubarak to flee to Sharm al-Sheikh, the country’s political class has been caught up in divisive battles over election laws, party alliances and timetables -- all complicated by the ruling military council’s thorough mishandling of the rocky transition. As a result, many parties have turned to electioneering with the sudden intensity of a student doing his homework on the morning ride to school. When it makes its debut at the Nasif café, al-‘Adl will be only the fourth party that Darb al-Ahmar residents have seen in their area. The others -- the Muslim Brothers, al-Wafd and al-Ghad -- are all Mubarak-era opposition parties with experience running in parliamentary elections.
This night al-‘Adl, formed by activists from Tahrir Square in the weeks after Mubarak’s fall, plans to present a platform and a genuine party to Egyptians who know little of either. Gamal ‘Ali Hasan is attending the event, an open-air town hall gathering, because his sister, Nadya, is a candidate for the party. His friend, Muhammad Mahmoud, is there for moral support. He has already decided to vote for the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. Next to him, Mahmoud Hasan Husayn, young and well-dressed, defends the National Democratic Party (NDP), which ruled the country under Mubarak through a vast network of corruption and patronage. He says the “leaderless” revolution has thrown the country into chaos. “If [the revolution] had a leader,” Muhammad shouts back, “it would have been a coup d’état!”
“What Will You Do?”
At 10 pm, when Cairo begins to wake up, al-‘Adl’s top candidate in the Qasr al-Nil district, Ahmad Saqr, picks up the microphone to introduce his party to a crowd of 75 men, young and old, that spills out onto the street. “Our project is justice,” he says. “Justice and security.” (‘Adl is the Arabic word for justice.) He speaks of street children and unemployment, of his vision for a parliamentary authority empowered to monitor the executive and hold its leaders accountable. He speaks of reforming education and the state’s sprawling security apparatus, the abolition of monopolies. When he finishes, the audience is invited to ask questions. “You are offering problems but there are no solutions,” one man says, and the crowd responds with applause. Saqr deflects the request by invoking Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The country’s problems will be solved “if people vote for the right person,” he says. When another man asks for details about the party’s plans for education reform, Saqr tells the crowd to consult with him after the meeting. “Announce your program in public,” someone yells. “You mentioned education, so tell us about your project. What will you do?” Saqr’s brief attempt at a response is quickly drowned out by more shouting from the crowd.
It is a strange trap for Saqr to fall into, the star candidate of a party that prides itself on pragmatism over ideology. Earlier in the week, al-‘Adl’s spokesperson, Noura Sulayman, spent a long afternoon explaining the party’s platform in an empty headquarters that roars to life after work hours when volunteers pour in. She spoke of sweeping plans to introduce critical thinking in schools, doing away with rote learning; establish retraining programs for teachers; launch a public works program to create jobs, while restructuring the legislative framework regulating small- to medium-sized businesses; detach Egypt’s reviled domestic security services from the chores of everyday policing; and decentralize the police force to make it more accountable to local communities. But Saqr, an amateur politician cornered by a nation of amateur voters, does not give the people of Darb al-Ahmar what they want. Time and again he is dragged into verbal spats. Throughout the night he fails to back up his pledges of reform with specific policy ideas. Sulayman acknowledged that candidates try to steer clear of the nitty-gritty at campaign events. “Most of the time it goes over people’s heads,” she said. Al-‘Adl is worried that other parties, many of whom have not yet presented a nuanced platform, will steal their ideas.
But the audience wants more. “Tell me how you will stop the torture,” another man yells. When Saqr’s answers fail to satisfy, he repeats himself. “My question is how?” As the meeting seems poised to spiral out of control, local residents begin to stand up for Saqr. When one participant criticizes him for starting his business in Dubai, Saqr says that his company imports computer parts for Egyptian companies. “No,” someone pipes up in his defense. “Say that there are thieves here and there are no thieves there,” the man says, referring to corruption under Mubarak that required businessmen to give kickbacks to regime officials. Hasan appeals to the crowd. “This is the first time a young person has come to our area,” he says. “He is our guest and we should show him respect.” When the meeting is ended, the hostility fades away. Several members of the audience greet the candidate warmly. Mahmoud, who stormed off in the middle of the meeting after accusing the candidate of giving poor answers, has returned. He pretends he only left the meeting in order to bring back more people. “He’s a good person,” he says of Saqr. “But we will hear from other people.”
The al-‘Adl team is not finished. The city will be awake for hours and the party has less than a month to distinguish itself in an electoral landscape littered with more than 55 political parties. After midnight, Saqr gathers a small group of party members and leaves the café, continuing a long night of campaigning through the narrow streets of Darb al-Ahmar.
Birth of the Party
The al-‘Adl party was formed in the heady days immediately after Mubarak’s reluctant departure, when the rapid downfall of one of the Arab world’s most “stable” leaders transformed what could have been a uniquely Tunisian moment into upheaval that spread across the region. The people had won, it seemed, and a new Egypt was on the way. On February 28, activists who had come together in Tahrir Square decided to establish a party that stood apart from ideological battles over a free or fair market, an Islamic or secular state. A month later, al-‘Adl opened for registration. “There was a realization that the revolution succeeded,” said Sulayman. “The next step was to rebuild and form a new government.”
The party runs on the energy of young, educated professionals who volunteer in the evenings. Many have spent time abroad and speak fluent English. They include dentists and architects, teachers and professors, and at least one genetic engineer photographs many of the party’s events. Sulayman has lived in the United States, Great Britain and Lebanon, and spent nine months volunteering for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. She is inspired by the success of Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, and says that many in al-‘Adl are “students of the Obama campaign.” They come from Egypt’s Twitter generation, highly vocal, ambitious, informed by a global perspective, but still a minority in a country with rampant poverty and illiteracy. Many have worked in NGOs and their experience in community development has made its way into party strategy.
Jihan Shukri, who organizes community projects for al-‘Adl in Cairo, founded her own charity 11 years ago to serve orphans and the mentally disabled. Under a bridge outside the Ghamra Metro station in early October, she runs a team of volunteers unpacking more than a dozen garbage bags stuffed with clothes. They will sell the donated items at reduced prices -- a “justice market,” they call it -- to raise awareness of the party. She shrugs off concerns that elections will come and go before al-‘Adl can make itself known to many Egyptians. “Even if it takes ten more years, we have to start,” she says. Many of the volunteers take a long view of the party’s potential. It is a reflection of their steady transition from street insurgency to political machine. Al-‘Adl likes to think of itself as a new kind of party: part political pressure group, part community developer, part revolutionary. Party cadres speak of a desire to transform their society, not just represent it. “We need a shift in what we regard as cultural norms like cleanliness, how we treat others on the street, our sense of community,” said Sulayman. “We’ve had a real cultural breakdown and we have to start to rebuild that.” ‘Umar Bakdash, who is responsible for vetting potential candidates, expects them to present ideas “that will change the way people think.”
When al-‘Adl completed its candidate lists for parliamentary elections, however, it shifted into campaign mode. Party activists began targeting their community work in areas they hope will win them votes. Candidates hold town hall meetings every night to push the party’s call for a technocratic parliament that eschews ideology and exercises oversight of government performance. According to Sulayman, the party is trying to abandon its streetfighter, community development ethos and refashion itself as a potential legislative force. “Political parties get in the government and fight for people,” she said. But their model of technocratic politics has not caught on in Egypt. The country’s newly opened political field has lurched from crisis to crisis in a climate of intense paranoia and uncertainty that has left the revolution’s atmosphere of unity in tatters. Islamists and secularists frequently square off in acrimonious debates that have left many Egyptians equating “secular” with “atheist.” Liberals remain deeply suspicious of Islamist parties’ commitment to plurality in a new constitution that will be drafted next year. “If you have these God speakers taking over, do you think there will be democracy beyond the first parliament?” asked Naguib Abadir, executive manager of the Free Egyptians party.
International media gave young, Internet-savvy activists like those in al-‘Adl credit for sparking Egypt’s revolutionary protests. But in the months since, as the country’s march toward parliamentary elections turned into a slow and troubled crawl, they have become an increasingly marginalized minority. A newly empowered generation shook off its elder politicians in a bid to capitalize on their moment of success. Activists who played a leading role in the protests broke away from parties like the Democratic Front and Tagammu‘. Young members of the Muslim Brothers, frustrated by the group’s closed leadership, established four parties of their own and were promptly kicked out of the organization for their disobedience. “Most of the youth were frustrated within their own parties because the seniors saw [the revolution] as a chance for them to be in the spotlight,” said Shadi Ghazali Harb, a prominent activist who left the Democratic Front to establish the Awareness Party. “Youth were not given a chance to lead.”
Many parties founded by young activists have struggled to get off the ground. Some have been unable to collect the 5,000 members required to register officially as a party. Groups that rose to prominence during the revolution, like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and the April 6 Movement, have continued to mobilize demonstrations. But they have been unable to translate their public voice into parties with potential for parliamentary weight. The Awareness Party was not licensed until September. It has initiated sustainable development projects in villages in less competitive districts -- what party members call the “blue ocean strategy” -- in the hope of picking up a few seats. But Harb knows the party will not be able to play a significant role in the first parliament. “We are formed for elections in ten years,” he says. “We want a majority in ten years with strong representation in five years.”
In polls released in September, al-‘Adl is the only party founded by youth that ranks well alongside other new parties. The numbers are not great; the most generous poll put them at 4.7 percent of decided voters (still fewer than half of eligible voters). But amid the panoply of parties, al-‘Adl has remained visible. The only other new parties with comparable presence are driven by powerful claims on identity. Salafi parties have picked up the support of a sizable minority and an electoral coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, has become the liberal standard bearer. It is headed by the Free Egyptians, funded by several of the country’s leading businessmen. Fueled by their injections of cash and managerial expertise, the party was up and running long before everyone else. A massive advertising campaign has helped attract more than 120,000 members. “We have the knowledge and the organizational skills to take this country into the future,” said party manager Abadir. Star businessman and party founder Naguib Sawiris’ public feuds with Islamists, including a controversial Twitter post in June that showed Mickey and Minnie Mouse in conservative Islamic dress, have contributed to the party’s image as a secular bulwark. The Free Egyptians are joined by Tagammu‘, the legally approved left opposition party under the old regime, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, filled with prominent political analysts. Together, they hope to play the part of fiercely liberal opposition in the next parliament. “It will be a major blow if the Egyptian Bloc does not get a blocking minority,” said Abadir. But in pitting themselves so firmly against Islamist parties, they have alienated a society that is outwardly religious. They will find it difficult to attract members who do not already identify with their cosmopolitan vision.
Without a strong showing for new parties run by youth and the secular elite, it looks like parties established long before the revolution could dominate the first parliament. An electoral coalition, the Democratic Alliance, between the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party and al-Wafd, announced in June, sent Egypt’s political class into a frenzy. The Muslim Brothers, trading on their Islamic credentials and embattled history, has established a network across the country that provides services for the poor. Al-Wafd -- founded in 1919, disbanded after the 1952 Free Officers’ revolution, then established again in 1983 -- has long been a reservoir of social elites and minorities, but their historical role has given them a sense of entitlement that may not stand up well to their new competition. “Egyptians are by their nature Wafdists, from the days of 1919,” said Margret ‘Azir, a candidate for the party in New Cairo, when asked about how she would confront challenges from youth parties.
It was an odd partnership between the country’s most established Islamist and liberal parties. A few prominent members of al-Wafd protested the party’s cooperation with the Brothers by supporting the Egyptian Bloc. Both parties were reluctant to support demonstrations that called on the military to scrap emergency laws giving it wide-ranging powers, which added to suspicion that the parties were plotting a counter-revolution. There were fears that the country’s most powerful actor, the military, had struck a deal with the Muslim Brothers to prevent structural change in the country’s leadership.
The Democratic Alliance quickly became the electoral bloc to beat, seen by members and opponents as the parliament’s soon-to-be majority coalition. It attracted newly forming salafi parties and a number of smaller powers, numbering 30 groups at its height, according to Muhammad al-Baltagi, secretary-general of the Freedom and Justice Party in Cairo. The stage was set for a battle between the Democratic Alliance, a large coalition headed by the country’s weathered politicians, and the Egyptian Bloc, set to become the liberal opposition. Parties that chose to run on their own, like al-‘Adl, might pick up a few seats but would be pushed around easily by the larger blocs.
It all came apart in the early weeks of October. Al-Wafd announced it was leaving the Democratic Alliance, then quickly retracted its announcement. At the party’s headquarters, an old villa of fading luxury in Cairo’s Duqqi neighborhood, a meeting between alliance members intended to present a unified front descended into chaos. Journalists were kicked out of the room. In the following days it became clear that al-Wafd would be running separately in parliamentary elections. It was the first crack in an electoral landscape that would soon fall to pieces.
In the convoluted elections process settled on by Egypt’s military rulers, voters will choose among several lists of candidates for two thirds of their district’s parliamentary seats. They will then pick from a longer list of candidates running independently for the remaining seats. This system means that parties who banded together into electoral coalitions must agree on a single list in each voting district. If the list receives enough votes for two candidates in that district, the first two candidates on the list are given a seat in Parliament. When push came to shove and party blocs had to negotiate who would get the top slots in each district, the electoral alliances fell apart. The Freedom and Justice party was accused of monopolizing the lists with its own candidates, breaking an early pledge that the Brothers would run for only 30 percent of seats in Parliament. Al-Baltagi said they were unimpressed with the names presented by other parties. “They were not accepted because they didn’t meet the requirements,” he said. Gamila Isma‘il, a prominent woman activist, quit the alliance when she found that she was given the third spot in her district.
The Egyptian Bloc, which had collected a number of young liberal, leftist and Marxist parties under its wing, also ran into trouble. When party leaders gathered ten days before the deadline for candidate registration, the Free Egyptians party presented candidates from the former NDP. Other parties protested, but the Free Egyptians defended their choices, arguing that these candidates were respected and popular in their areas. There were not many former NDP members on the list, but Marwa Farouq, a member of the general secretariat of the Egyptian Socialist Popular Alliance, formed by youth who left Tagammu‘, said it was a matter of principle. “We told them, ‘You are betting on a losing card, because the former NDP member, when he gets into Parliament, will look after his own interests,’” she said. “‘He does not believe in the party.’” Several parties left the Egyptian Bloc and set up The Revolution Continues, a collection of young parties and independent activists, including offshoots of the Muslim Brothers, who have focused their attention on loosening the military’s grip on the country.
The Free Egyptians is not the only party through which former members of the regime, sometimes estimated to have numbered up to 3 million, are sneaking back into politics. Members of al-Wafd in the Sinai Peninsula publicly split with the party when they found remnants of the former regime running on al-Wafd’s candidate list in their area. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party allows former members of the NDP to join with approval from local party leaders. “There was no political life in Egypt, so anyone looking to participate had to enter the NDP,” said Basim Kamil, a candidate for the party. “We can’t say that 3 million people are bad guys.” It is a contentious issue in Egypt, where attempts to pass a law banning the participation of former regime members in public life have floundered. The NDP’s system of patronage embraced prominent members of large families, particularly in Upper Egypt, and many parties, desperate to raise their profile outside of Cairo, appear to be padding their electoral lists with anyone they can find. “All the parties are looking for candidates,” said Magid Sorour, whose One World Foundation is monitoring the election process. “We have found that a lot of candidates in many opposition parties are former NDP members.”
Egypt’s next parliament is likely to have some familiar faces. NDP members are surfacing in several new parties, including the Unity Party, founded by the former NDP secretary-general, Husam Badrawi, which says it is fielding 100 candidates. More than 6,000 people have registered to run for the one third of parliamentary seats reserved for independent candidates. Reports suggest that many of them come from the former ruling party. If they perform well, a contingent of former NDP members will add another layer of uncertainty to a weak parliament already cluttered with small parties. The former ruling party had no consistent ideological stance and its members’ predilections remain unclear. They may take strong pro-reform stances in a bid to please their constituents. But there are also fears that former NDP members, conditioned to a system of patronage, will simply make their votes in Parliament open to the highest bidder. Behind-the-scenes actors could then exercise unelected influence and further destabilize consensus on key questions of reform. The most important question the country will face will be the role the new constitution will specify for the country’s powerful generals.
The Generals in Charge
Egypt has been ruled by a military man since the Free Officers took charge in 1952. As demands on the army’s warfighting capacity have decreased, it has taken on a large portfolio of economic interests, producing everything from macaroni to luxury hotels. The army was an integral part of Mubarak’s regime, but Egyptians tend to distinguish it from brutal police force and corrupt ruling party. When soldiers in armored vehicles entered the streets on January 28 after a bloody battle between protesters and police, they were greeted as heroes. They did not fire on protesters, and during Cairo’s darkest days of chaos and violence, they acted as small oases of stability. Within a week of Mubarak’s fall, Egyptians were watching Libya’s army pound its people into dust, a reminder of how violently a military can turn on its own people.
Control of the country passed to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of top generals that sought to leverage its popularity with the people to protect its autonomy in any future government. Some have characterized Egypt’s revolution as a coup d’état, a clever move by the military to use the revolutionary protests as a cover to purge the cabal around Mubarak, which was often at odds with military leaders, and rule the country themselves. But it seems likely that when the military turned on Mubarak, himself a former commander of the air force, it was thinking about more parochial prerogatives: to preserve its economic infrastructure, ensure continued US financial support and retain control of the country’s foreign policy. In power the SCAF has drawn on emergency laws to perform mass arrests -- more than 12,000 since February -- and incited hostility toward dissidents critical of its actions. Human rights groups face prosecution for accepting money from the US government. On July 23 a member of the SCAF appeared on television and accused the April 6 Movement, whose continued protests have been a thorn in the council’s side, of attempting to turn the people against the military. A statement released later by the council accused them of serving “foreign agendas.”
The generals’ battle with activists who continued to push for a rapid transition to civilian rule divided the country. Many began to feel that protesters were causing disruptions to residents’ lives for petty concerns. Those who were the target of the military’s crackdown interpreted the reluctance of some political forces to intervene as proof that they had made a pact with the army to roll back the revolution. The dispute went into a downward spiral. Demonstrators, mostly liberal and secular, were believed to be hostile to democracy because they brought their grievances to the street. Islamists were believed to be hostile to democracy because they did not.
In the final days of June, at a memorial event held at the Balloon Theater in Cairo’s ‘Agouza neighborhood for those killed during the January-February revolutionary protests, clashes broke out between security forces and the victims’ family members in attendance. The battle quickly spread to Tahrir Square and, by morning, at least 1,140 people had been injured. Thousands of people subsequently came out on July 8 for the largest demonstrations in Tahrir Square since Mubarak’s ouster. Politicians and activists put aside a battle over the country’s future constitution and for the first time Egyptians across the political spectrum expressed their anger about issues widely considered to be under the SCAF’s control: the release of police officers accused of killing protesters; the slow pace of security reforms; the increasing use of military trials for activists arrested during protests; and a rise in violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police. Family members of those killed during the revolution and a small contingent of activists began a sit-in on the square, bringing traffic around one of the city’s transportation hubs to a halt.
The generals responded with a flurry of concessions. Within a week, Minister of Interior Mansour al-‘Isawi sent more than 600 police officers into early retirement, purportedly for abuses during protests. Mubarak’s former interior minister, Habib al-‘Adli, was convicted of squandering public funds in an attempt to calm rising anger over the slow pace of trials against former regime officials. The Finance Ministry raised the minimum wage for government employees by more than 50 percent. Two weeks later, after reports that the military was blocking changes to Prime Minister ‘Isam Sharaf’s cabinet, new ministers were appointed.
Those who were watching closely noticed that many of the concessions were not as far-reaching as they appeared. Key members of the old cabinet, such as the heads of the Ministries of Interior and Justice, survived the cabinet shuffle. The country’s emergency law, a source of legitimacy for the military’s heavy-handed tactics, remained in place. Only 37 of the police officers dismissed were accused of shooting protesters. Magda Butrus, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, knew of nearly 200 officers alleged to have taken part. “The minister has been selling it as a major change within the Ministry of Interior, but this is something that happens every year,” she said shortly after the announcement. “Some officers are referred to retirement, some officers are promoted and some are moved to new positions.”
At the same time, the SCAF continued its efforts to to tarnish the image of demonstrators. In a televised address on July 12, SCAF spokesman Gen. Muhsin al-Fangari called on Egyptians to resist “attempts to hinder the restoration of normal life,” a thinly veiled reference to protesters who had shut down Tahrir Square. Activists were furious. Twitter filled up with anger at the hostile tone of the speech. But the SCAF’s message resonated with many Egyptians. The sit-in dragged on for three weeks. Numbers dwindled and protesters increasingly moved away from consensus issues. For a few days they shut down an important administrative building next to Tahrir Square, preventing hundreds of Egyptians from renewing licenses. The city’s residents were fed up with the disruption.
On August 1, the first day of Ramadan, hundreds of military and police officers stormed Tahrir Square from all directions. Protesters, languishing under makeshift tents in the oppressive afternoon heat, fled. Several were beaten and arrested. Tents were torn down. Journalists were detained and told not to film the scene. International media fumed, but local shopkeepers on the square cheered on the security forces after weeks of slow business. The police occupied the square and traffic resumed. The uproar quickly died down and, though it would not be the last demonstration in Tahrir Square, the activists’ momentum was shattered.
The SCAF continued to switch between provocation and conciliation. They called in activists over comments against the military, then released them when criticism mounted. They promised to cancel emergency laws and end military trials, but never followed through.
Another turning point arrived on October 9: When television channels showed footage of soldiers in armored vehicles running down Coptic protesters outside the state television building, the country was shocked. The military lost its sheen, and whatever support it had from the country’s Coptic minority, more so when the army sought to blame the Copts. State-owned media reported that protesters had fired on Egyptian soldiers, killing at least two. The SCAF claimed to have buried the army’s dead in secret and refused to release any names.
The military seemed to be up to the old regime’s tricks, using crises to deflect criticism directed at them and blaming problems on minorities and “foreign hands.” It made concessions on some issues when the public outcry grew too big to contain, but each concession was presented without discussion. The army refused to relinquish control over the pace of the transition period and the terms of agreements with political forces. When the head of the SCAF, Field Marshal Muhammad Husayn Tantawi, turned up on a downtown Cairo street in a civilian suit on September 26, many began to worry that he was preparing for a run at the presidency. The SCAF repeatedly denied plans to run a military candidate in presidential elections, but then posters went up in Cairo and Alexandria touting Tantawi for the job. The SCAF denied any involvement.
The generals’ bullish, go-it-alone approach to the transition period has turned their political allies against them. In October, the Muslim Brothers’ deputy supreme guide, Khayrat al-Shatir, told Al Jazeera he would call the people back into the streets if the military does not hand over power on schedule. “The people will bear no more tyranny,” he said. They were strong words for the Brothers, which only three months earlier had expressed its trust in the military. “We think the army believes in the revolution,” said al-Baltagi in July.
The split came when the military promised to present a document on constitutional principles before the parliamentary elections. Liberals wanted guarantees that a new constitution would ensure freedom of expression and religion. Islamist parties fought the move in the expectation that they would be able to use their strong parliamentary presence to influence the drafting of a constitution, which is likely to specify the relationship between Islam and the state. When Deputy Prime Minister ‘Ali al-Salmi presented the document to political parties on the first day of November, the Muslim Brothers and salafi leaders refused to attend. Others, including al-‘Adl party leader Ahmad Shukri and human rights campaigner Hafiz Abu Sa‘da, walked out. The document prevented parliamentary oversight of the military budget, and gave the army both a stronger role in selecting the committee that would draft a constitution and the authority to appoint a new constitutional committee if the first one could not agree on a constitution within six months. It was a declaration of independence for the military. “The document makes Parliament good for nothing,” Abu Sa‘da told the independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN official and Nobel laureate who is expected to run for president, posted a message on Twitter: “The armed forces are not a nation above the nation.”
To the Polls
On November 28, Egyptians will go to the polls in an extraordinary act of faith. They have spent nine months agonizing over the details of a democratic future that may never arrive. Al-‘Adl, even if its candidates are wildly successful, is likely to be no more than a minor power broker in a fragmented parliament that will have to put aside its differences to manhandle an overbearing military back into its barracks. The newly elected parliament will have to convince the people that they, not the military, are more capable of governing a country with a police force that has collapsed, an economy that has stalled, and a growing set of demands from a population accustomed to subsidies that kept the poorest from starving but left the country broke. If they fail, the military will transform itself from the country’s temporary guardian into its permanent veto over political decisions.
The sudden collapse of electoral alliances means that al-‘Adl is less likely to be drowned out by large, stable coalitions. They have a shot at gaining more seats than any other youth party, but they are not fooling themselves. “What’s good for us may not be enough for others,” Sulayman said. “A good number of seats is enough to allow us a voice.” Their anti-ideology, technocratic platform remains untested, and their vision of a parliament that sets national policy and regulates the country’s executive may not be understood by many Egyptians. At the Nasif café in Darb al-Ahmar, one resident wanted a powerful local representative who could win favors from the central government for his neighborhood. Another man said that party representatives should not concern themselves with the details of governance. “The parliament should form a new constitution,” he said. “That is its job.”
Al-‘Adl’s greatest challenge will be in carving out a space for itself in voters’ minds. Without a clear vision of what Egyptians want, parties have gravitated toward the center. Even the pro-business Free Egyptians party is trying to bolster its social justice credentials, emphasizing a “free social market economy” that is “responsible to all social classes.” When stripped of their ideological coloring, many of the parties look the same, and it is difficult to tell which promises are real and which will be cast aside when the elections are over. Al-‘Adl’s determination to stay out of the skirmishes between liberals and Islamists has left them out of the media frenzy through which most parties established their identity. Weeks from the elections, Egyptians still do not know who al-‘Adl is and what it represents, a problem faced by many of the younger parties that do not speak in the traditional terms of Egypt’s political discourse. “[Youth parties] are in a more hazardous situation than others because they don’t represent a single ideological current that is deeply rooted in the society,” said Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. “However, they represent a very general current in society that is democratic, outgoing and intolerant of authoritarianism.”
If and when Egypt’s youth take their seats in Parliament, they will come face to face with the central problem of their revolution: The crowds on public squares across the country brought the nation to a moment of crisis, but in the end they relied on the generals to shove Mubarak out the door. Will the army return to its barracks? “If we thought about what was likely to happen on January 25, we would have never had a revolution,” Saqr said. He flew in from Dubai at 7 am that day to participate in the demonstration. “I never think about my chance of success.”
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Muhammad Mansour for his valuable research assistance.