Divided as ever
Protests in Tahrir are unlikely to stop the presidential election process. Instead they will highlight the deep divisions and mistrust between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular political parties, writes Khaled Dawoud
Click to view caption|
From top: angry protests in Tahrir on Tuesday; effigies of former regime officials, led by Mubarak, are dressed in prison red, the colour of execution, and hang in Alexandria, also on Tuesday
The response to calls for mass demonstrations in Tahrir on Friday, 1 June, to protest against the results of the first round of presidential elections was limited. A few thousand gathered to demand that presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafik, former president Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, be banned from running in the second round of presidential elections.
But the verdicts on Saturday in the trial of Mubarak, his two sons, former interior minister Habib El-Adli and six senior security officers triggered the largest demonstrations Tahrir Square has witnessed for months, leading many to draw comparisons with the first days of the 25 January 2011 popular revolt. Protests continued throughout the week, with a mass gathering on Tuesday night. Another major protest was scheduled to take place in Alexandria yesterday to mark the second anniversary of the death of Khaled Said. Beaten to death in the street by two policemen, public repugnance at the young Alexandrian's brutal murder marked the beginning of the revolt against Mubarak. Large protests are also scheduled for Friday, and demonstrations are likely to continue until a final decision is made on whether the second round of elections will go ahead as planned on 16 June.
Protests against the verdicts in the Mubarak trial -- in which the president's two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of charges of corruption on a technicality, and six of Egypt's most senior security officials were judged to have played no role in the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters -- were held from Alexandria to Aswan. Apart from Mubarak and El-Adli all the defendants were acquitted. And while the former president and his Interior Ministry received life sentences, in delivering the verdict presiding judge Ahmed Refaat, in the opinion of many legal experts, handed them a future acquittal on appeal on a silver platter.
Protesters flooded into Tahrir Square despite the heat. Many said they were without political affiliation and had come to the square because the sentences did not provide justice for the families of nearly 850 young people killed during the 18-day revolt against Mubarak. By sunset Tahrir Square, Qasr Al-Nil Bridge and adjacent streets were filled with protesters, all demanding the retrial of Mubarak and his aides, accusing the prosecutor-general -- a Mubarak appointee -- of deliberately mishandling the case. "The regime is trying itself, and the result is acquittal," read one banner.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] told the public that Mubarak and his aides had to be tried in regular courts in order to retrieve the billions of dollars they smuggled abroad," said Tarek Hussein, an accountant. "Now, 15 months later, no one involved in killing protesters has received a sentence, all the police officers put on trial have been acquitted, and not a piastre has been recovered."
Anger at the sentences exploded against a backdrop of widespread discontent with the progress of the presidential election campaign which has pitched Shafik against the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi, leaving a majority of voters -- between them the two runners up, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh secured 8.5 million votes -- feeling the choice is between two evils.
The two losing presidential candidates appeared in Tahrir on Saturday night demanding not only the retrial of Mubarak, his sons and security aides, but the revival of the disenfranchisement law, approved by parliament in April, which prevents key Mubarak regime figures from contesting the presidency.
The law -- primarily directed at Shafik and Mubarak's General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman --- was promptly ratified by SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, which legal experts argue means it should have been implemented immediately. But the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC), against whose decisions, according to SCAF's Constitutional Declaration, there can be no appeal, referred the law to the Supreme Constitutional Court, allowing Shafik to take part in the presidential elections. Suleiman was excluded for falling 31 proxies short of the 30,000 needed to back his nomination.
"We will not accept the continuation of the election game without the implementation of the disenfranchisement law," Sabahi told the crowds on Tuesday. "Without the isolation of Shafik we will not have elections." His former Islamist adversary, expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood when he announced his intention to run for the presidency, was equally hard-line. "Shafik is Hosni Mubarak's candidate," said Abul-Fotouh, "and we will not accept him in the race. His participation is illegal. He belongs in prison. He participated in killing your brothers in Tahrir."
Both demanded the immediate formation of revolutionary courts to retry Mubarak and his most senior officials.
Shafik, whose campaign managers say he will not hold any mass rallies in the lead up to the second round of voting, probably for security reasons, criticised the demands coming out of Tahrir Square, noting that Sabahi and Abul-Fotouh agreed to take part in the first round on 23 and 24 May while he was on the ballot and it made no sense to demand his exclusion after he came second. He stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood were using the protests in the Tahrir in an attempt to boost their candidate, Mursi, and called upon his opponents to respect the choice of the Egyptian people expressed through the ballot box.
Inevitably, deep differences among Shafik's opponents could not be kept under wraps. Losing presidential candidates Sabahi and Khaled Ali, backed mainly by liberal and leftist groups, are demanding the cancellation of the second round of voting and the formation of a "civilian presidential council" that will take over power from SCAF on 30 June until a new constitution has been drafted, to be followed by fresh elections. In opposing the proposal Mursi and Shafik find themselves on the same side. Liberal and leftist groups have also been pressing Mursi and the Brotherhood's leadership to agree on the formation of the 100-member committee that will draft a new constitution before 16 June, when voting starts. Several meetings were held to iron out differences with no success.
Non Islamist groups accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of dragging its feet over guarantees for a civilian state because it believes Mursi will win. In the meantime, the Brotherhood wants them to support Mursi under the banner of "saving of the revolution" without offering anything in return. Mistrust of the Brotherhood has grown since the revolt against Mubarak ended and, together with the Salafist Nour Party, it won nearly 70 per cent of parliamentary seats. Non-Islamist parties say the Brotherhood refused to support them during a series of bloody clashes against the military when they were demanding a clear timetable for the return to civil rule. They also claim the political Islamic group is seeking to monopolise the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, effectively replicating the one-party system of rule under Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
Despite attempts by organisers to maintain an image of unity, there were repeated clashes in Tahrir between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and their opponents. When MP Ziad El-Oleimi took the stage on Tuesday night and demanded the formation of a "civilian presidential council that represented the revolution" he was booed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The Brotherhood are here to convince us to vote for Mursi," said Tahani Lashin, an activist with the Popular Socialist Alliance Party. "But they refuse to give any concrete commitments, asking us to trust their promises and good intentions. We tried that many times before and they have never kept their word."
Hisham Qassem, rights activist and publisher, said he did not think that the ongoing protests in Tahrir would lead to the cancellation of the second round of voting. "There are too many divisions among the protesters in Tahrir, and their numbers are mush smaller than during the revolution against Mubarak." He expects the authorities to present more corruption cases against Mubarak, his two sons and former members of the regime, in an attempt to absorb public anger at Saturday's sentences.
Meanwhile, SCAF has confirmed in a meeting with leaders of 18 political parties on Tuesday that elections will go ahead as planned, warning that it would issue a decree establishing the committee tasked with drafting the constitution and delimiting the powers of the next president if agreement could not be reached within 48 hours.