There is something approaching optimism right now among members of Egypt’s revolutionary set, some of whom think the events of the last week have helped their cause.
The verdicts in the Mubarak trial - the acquittals of his sons and his former security chiefs - brought crowds, and a sense of purpose, back to Tahrir Square. People across the country were outraged. The resulting protests have united several defeated candidates from the first round of the presidential elections last month.
They’re pushing for a “presidential council,” a group of civilians who will rule the country because the current presidential elections are “invalid.”
The three candidates - leftists Hamdeen Sabbahi and Khaled Ali, and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh - appeared on Monday night in Tahrir Square to announce the plan. They were back in the square on Tuesday after marching there with thousands of supporters. Many of Egypt’s revolutionaries want the council as a way to ensure a civil state.
But to many other Egyptians - and they are, anecdotally, a much larger group - this is at best a political stunt by what some call “sore losers,” and at worst an undemocratic power grab. The presidential election commission has rejected it, and there is no legal mechanism for implementing it. Even some of Egypt’s liberals, like MP Amr Hamzawy, view the council idea as undemocratic and want to finish the election.
“They lost, and now they’re trying to change the rules,” said Said Mustafa, a taxi driver and Shafiq supporter in Cairo.
Shafiq goes on the attack
Even if it was legally feasible, there is one name missing from the proposed council: Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, the top vote-getter in last month’s election and one of the two candidates who’s actually in the runoff this month.
He did meet on Monday with Sabbahi, Aboul Fotouh and Ali to discuss the council. Some media reports say he rejected it others say he’s considering it. His official statement doesn’t even mention the idea, and it’s hard to see why he would endorse a plan that limits his own political future while offering no tangible benefits in return. Without his endorsement, the idea is probably a non-starter.
And so despite the renewed protests in Tahrir, most Egyptians believe the real power struggle is still the one between the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime, or perhaps more accurately the “deep state,” the generals and security chiefs who want to preserve their grip on power.
Morsi knows this: Brotherhood activists have been in Tahrir Square the last few nights, trying to build support for their candidate. So does his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, who was Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister. He went on the offensive against Morsi this week, first at a press conference on Sunday, when he described the Brotherhood as a divisive group that “represents darkness and sectarianism.”
Then, in a televised interview on Monday night, he accused the group of killing protesters in Tahrir Square during the revolution, a patently untrue claim.
The runoff election could still be derailed, though not because of anything happening in Tahrir Square. Shafiq could be disqualified because of the so-called “political exclusion law” passed by parliament earlier this year, which bans high-level members of Mubarak’s regime from running for public office. (Shafiq was Mubarak’s last prime minister). The constitutional court is supposed to rule on that law sometime before the runoff.
What happens if Shafiq is disqualified? Nobody’s quite sure. It could reduce the runoff to an up-or-down vote on Morsi. Or it could trigger an entirely new election, which would call into question SCAF’s plan to hand over power by June 30.
’We may be forced to accept Shafiq’
If the election goes forward as planned, it seems like a toss-up. The two candidates received similar levels of support in the first round: 5.7 million votes for Morsi, 5.5 million for Shafiq. Neither is very popular among Egyptians who voted for Sabbahi and Aboul Fotouh, the third- and fourth-place finishers.
A majority of the Sabbahi and Aboul Fotouh voters I interviewed said they would boycott the runoff.
Among those voters, there is a great deal of cynicism about the whole process. Many believe there was widespread fraud in the first round, though nobody has been able to prove it. The most common rumor is that nearly one million police officers - who are prohibited from voting - were issued fake ID cards so they could vote for Shafiq. Representatives from the Sabbahi, Aboul Fotouh and Ali campaigns have made this allegation several times, most recently at a press conference on Monday.
And there is a widespread belief that SCAF simply will not allow Morsi to win the presidency. “Morsi is fine, but my fear is that we may be forced to accept Shafiq,” said Abu Omar, a grocer in Zagazig who voted for Aboul Fotouh and now plans to vote Morsi.
Egypt’s revolutionaries are angry, and rightfully so: They started this uprising 18 months ago and overthrew a dictator, only to find themselves politically marginalized. But Egypt’s two most powerful political forces seem determined to hold this runoff on time, and if they succeed, these latest protests (like so many others) will not rebalance the political equation.