What now for Egypt’s beleaguered liberals? Ahead of disputed parliamentary elections, the secular forces that featured so prominently during the first months of the revolution are struggling.
With one foot in the sphere of formal politics and the other in the politics of the street, they are failing to make headway in either direction. The liberals are being derided in Tahrir Square as having sold out to the supreme council of the armed forces (Scaf) by agreeing to participate in a flawed “transition” proceeding at a snail’s pace; and outgunned by the organisational firepower of the Islamist parties and remnants of Hosni Mubarak’s old ruling NDP, both of which look set to sweep the board when voting stations open their doors on Monday.
“They are trying, and failing, to appeal to everyone, and as a result find themselves constantly hedging their bets on a revolution that very few of them understand and very few of them are fundamentally committed to,” said Khalid Abdalla, an actor and activist who will not be heading to the polls. “There’s an attempt among this section of the political class to try to find a balance between what the powers-that-be will accept and what the square will accept, but the reality is that those two things are completely irreconcilable.”
That resonates with the feeling on the ground following eight days of bloodshed that have so far failed to bring down military rule, or indeed knock the four-month election timetable off course. As the body count piled up and popular pressure on the junta mounted – culminating on Friday in Cairo’s biggest protest since the toppling of Mubarak, and a call by the White House for Scaf to return to barracks immediately – Egypt’s plethora of liberal parties and independent candidates have flipped and flopped in an effort to respond to the crisis, some temporarily suspending their campaigns, some withdrawing from the race, and others insisting that the show must go on.
One Egyptian, who recently did a straw poll of liberal candidates to see if they were still standing for parliament, said that the most common answer was “lam” – a combination of the Arabic words for no (la) and yes (na’am).
On Thursday, the Social Democratic party – a grouping of prominent intellectuals who believe in a market-based economy, but want to see greater emphasis on social justice – announced that it was withdrawing from the parliamentary election, a decision taken less than 48 hours after its leaders had agreed to meet a number of Scaf senior figures behind closed doors. “We refuse to participate in this gamble of lives and of the future of this nation, and we refuse to partake in this show of elections, which will divert attention away from the legitimate demands of revolutionaries,” it said. Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, the head of the party, added that he was “truly sorry” for sitting down with the generals.
Others insisted, however, that there was no contradiction between support for the revolution and a fight to win representation in parliament – even though the new legislature will be restricted to drawing up a constitutional assembly and have little or no ability to hold Scaf to account.
Mahmoud Salem, 30, a prominent blogger who is running for office under the banner of the Free Egyptians party – a well-funded secular organisation launched by Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire telecoms tycoon – said that he was the first person to freeze electoral activities when violence erupted in Cairo last Saturday, but insisted that participation in the election remained the best way to advance genuine change.
“Yes, we are in a dilemma, because we are criticised no matter what we do,” he said. “I couldn’t go out and canvass for votes while there were people being killed in Tahrir, and I have argued since then that the elections should be delayed by a week. But I can’t withdraw altogether, because if I do someone else will take office and that person will be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or a former member of the NDP.
“Elections are what people want right now, and those in Tahrir who argue otherwise and say no vote should take place as long as Scaf is still in existence simply haven’t managed to communicate that message to the wider population.”
It’s an argument that cuts little ice with young, radical and secular protesters like Abdalla, who might once have been considered part of a natural support base for those lining up against the Islamists in the battle for parliamentary seats.
Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said: “The liberals are struggling because – given the wider context – elections have become a moot point.
“There is not a liberal environment in which a vote can be held. Instead, you have a serious rift in society between generations, and this ballot will not solve it. The new prime minister is 78 – what can he or any parliament elected under these conditions say to Egypt’s youth?”
Abdalla goes further, arguing that liberals such as Salem have missed the most essential point of the revolution. “We’re not fighting any political party, or the army, or the Muslim Brotherhood – we’re fighting a structure. And that’s what the liberal political elite don’t seem to understand. I’d much rather have the Muslim Brotherhood in place and get rid of Scaf than I would have [liberal figurehead] Mohamed ElBaradeirunning the government but leave Scaf in power. The revolution against Scaf is now; there will be time later to play the reformist, gradualist game where we sit down and argue over minute policy differences.”
Mona el-Ghobashy, a political expert, recently wrote that “for at least a decade before Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians were doing their politics outdoors”, with daily rallies in the streets, factory courtyards and public squares.
In the middle of this ongoing revolution, that basic truth remains unchanged; the question that liberals have been struggling to answer is whether, as long as the generals remain entrenched, formal electoral politics can play any part in that outdoor struggle, or whether the two are mutually exclusive. Meanwhile, they remain torn between two worlds and struggling to make a home in either.