Egypt's youth leaders vow continued protests

Between a reluctant military still in power and religious parties gaining steam, upcoming elections in Egypt are murky.

    Ahmed Maher said his April 6th Movement will use its organising power to pressure the military council [Ahmed Maher]

    Ahead of what organisers hope will be a huge march in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday, one of the young leaders of Egypt's new protest movement has vowed to continue escalating demonstrations, ranging from sit-ins to mass civil disobedience, if the country's military rulers don't accede to protesters' evolving demands.

    "What we call the forces of evil are still there," said Ahmed Maher, the 30-year-old co-founder of the April 6th Youth Movement, which helped lead the upheaval that began on January 25.

    Members of the old regime are reconstituting themselves, high-ranking officers in the feared Interior Ministry remain free from prosecution, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – which has run the country since ex-President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February – is becoming less and less responsive, Maher told an audience at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar on Monday.

    He and Mohamed Arafat, a member of the newly-formed Social Democratic Party and a supporter of presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, both accused the military council of being opaque and unaccountable.

    They said only continued pressure in the form of street protests could force the ruling generals to negotiate.

    Cooling relations

    The hardened tone comes after weeks of lessening goodwill between the people and the army.

    Military police have recently been accused of baseless arrests, abuse and torture, incommunicado detentions and slapdash trials that may result in multi-year prison sentences for protesters.

    Meanwhile, the unelected civilian leadership led by former Transportation Minister Essam Sharaf has drafted a law, subject to the military's approval, that would give the state power to ban strikes and protests – a nod toward both the generals' and the ruling cliques' interest in protecting their business interests.

    The military's heavy-handed street actions have been mirrored by its icy behaviour toward the broad-based youth coalition that drove the revolution and remains the bearer of its legitimacy.

    Since Mubarak's departure on February 11, the military council had routinely dispatched two generals, Mohsen al-Fingari and Mohd Higazi, to meet with representatives of the Revolutionary Youth Committee, Maher said. But there have been no meetings for the past two weeks.

    "The present situation is ambiguous, nobody knows what they're thinking," he said. "We respect the army, there's no doubt about that, [but] nothing will be imposed on us… without being thoroughly discussed with us."

    'Rainbows and unicorns'

    The conflict reflects a growing "competition over legitimacies" between the armed forces and the revolution, said Steven Cook, an Egypt expert with the Council of Foreign relations who joined Monday's talk by video from Washington DC.

    The generals' predominant interest is stability; they want to maintain their grip on the levers of power.

    Members of the council would like to step away from the political game, which they have very little experience in playing, but not before protecting their exalted status in society and their deep economic interests in the state, Cook said.

    In Cook's view, Egypt's near-term politics could unfold three ways: An ideal liberal democracy with checks and balances, a old regime under a new name, or a period of unstable pluralism.

    The ideal democracy – a "rainbows and unicorns" scenario – is unlikely, and a reconstitution of Mubarak's long-ruling National Democratic Party only slightly less so, Cook said.

    Most probable is the creation of a vigorous but unstable political atmosphere with a constantly changing constitution, a flashback to the 1930s and 1940, when Egypt witnessed multiple vying political parties but suffered from a constantly dissolving parliament.

    Into the fray

    Indeed, an array of new political groups are eager to jump into the fray, including some from religious movements that the state barely tolerated in the past.

    The formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, which used to run candidates as thinly veiled independents, recently formed its own Freedom and Justice Party and plans to run candidates for parliament.

    Within the Brotherhood, some members already are reported to be in the process of splitting away.

    Leading reformer Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has said he'll create his own party, the Nahda or Renaissance Party, and another member has announced a similar plan to form a separate breakaway: the Peace and Development Party. Both moves have been criticised by the Brotherhood's senior leadership, reflecting growing schisms within the normally strictly hierarchical group.

    Then there are the Salafis, members of one of the most conservative schools of Islamic thought, who relegated themselves to the background during the Mubarak years to avoid provoking the state's anti-Islamist security forces but have begun to assert themselves in recent weeks, occasionally with force.

    Salafis made the news recently after groups of adherents reportedly trashed the home of an alleged prostitute and destroyed Sufi shrines.

    From 'protest vote' to competition

    Both Arafat and Maher seemed to brush off their religious competition.

    "Usually people resort to religion when they feel desperate, they feel insecure… [and have] no one to go to but almighty God," Arafat said.

    In the Mubarak years, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at the ballot box was like casting a "protest vote" against the National Democratic Party, Arafat said, since the opposing forces were the only players with any sway in Egyptian politics.

    Both he and Maher said they would accept the participation of religious groups, especially the Brotherhood, which proved its revolutionary bonafides by supplying many of the revolution's front-line fighters.

    But the liberals' tolerance of their conservative comrades extends only so far as both sides agree with the basic vision of a civil society.

    The Salafis, Maher and Arafat said, would be tougher, because they're not used to political participation.

    "Dealing with them can be problematic, in a way," Arafat said. "[But] provided they accept dialogue, it's OK."

    Race to the polls

    Such hopes sound idealistic in the wake of Egypt's March national referendum vote, which approved a set of constitutional amendments meant to begin the country's piecemeal retreat from the old authoritarian government, but which liberal groups opposed because it set the stage for fast elections they fear the Brotherhood and former regime elements will dominate.

    Both the Salafis and the Brotherhood resorted to religious sloganeering to convince voters to approve the amendments and suggested that a "no" vote contravened Islamic law and would abolish the second article of the constitution, which enshrines sharia as the principal source of authority.

    The debate over the nature of Egyptian society – declaring it secular, not religious – is one of many battles that could play out in the country's new parliament. It ranks high among Maher's goals, alongside creating a separation of powers and a truly independent judiciary.

    But as soon as Maher, in a later interview, mentioned the possibility of changing Article Two to declare sharia "one of" and not the only foundation of state authority, he quickly acknowledged how hard that would be. The majority of Egyptians aren't ready for such a change, he said.

    If the referendum's 77 per cent approval means anything, April 6th and its progressive allies will have to do a lot more town-by-town organising before they can hope to succeed in September's parliamentary election.

    Maher said his group has offices in 20 of Egypt's 29 governorates, while Arafat said the Social Democratic Party was less well-represented but expanding. Both are strong in Egypt's urban areas: Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said.

    The means to an end

    With the first post-Mubarak election just five months away, Egypt's new politics remains barely sketched.

    The Social Democrats don't know yet whether they will run individual candidates or form a national list with a coalition of groups, possibly including the Democratic Front Party or the Ghad Party, led by well-known and formerly imprisoned opposition politician Ayman Nour.

    There isn't even a law that allows coalitions to put forward a list, Arafat said, though his party has 15 or 20 members ready to run and around 23,000 registered supporters.

    Maher's task is perhaps easier, since April 6th isn't interested in forming a party – at least not yet.

    He sees the organisation acting as a political watchdog and pressure group for the next two to five years, harnessing its power to put thousands of demonstrators in the streets on short notice.

    The movement will support whoever pushes its goals, which include putting members of the old regime, such as Mubarak himself, on trial.

    "We don't care about who, we care about how," he said.

    Follow Evan Hill on Twitter @evanchill

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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