Tahrir or bust?
The square is again full of protesters, leaving political forces scrambling, so far unsuccessfully, to capitalise on the return to street politics. Will it be a storm in a teacup? Amira Howeidy
When Judge Ahmed Refaat, who presided over Hosni Mubarak's 10-month long trial, issued his verdict Saturday morning the ex-president and his interior minister Habib El-Adli were handed life sentences while the latter's six most senior aides and Mubarak's two sons were acquitted. By sunset thousands were filling downtown Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square and it was impossible to miss the palpable sense of frustration at what has happened to the revolution in the 15 months since Mubarak's ouster.
In less than two weeks a new president will be elected. After the rainbow choices of the first round just two names will appear on the run-off ballot paper -- the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister.
Shafik, widely believed to enjoy the support of the Mubarak-era network of businessmen, politicians and security officials and who has been quoted as saying that "unfortunately" the revolution succeeded, is perceived as a threat to any attempt to establish a new order in Egypt. The success of the Brotherhood's candidate, on the other hand, would cement the group's domination of the upper and lower houses of parliament and effectively replicate the monopoly over political life previously exercised by Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
Attempts to elicit guarantees from Mursi that the Brotherhood will not manipulate political life in return for support from other political forces have been met with verbal approvals by the MB leader, and nothing more. The common demand that the Brotherhood finalise guidelines on forming a hundred member assembly representative of Egyptian society to draft a new constitution after its Freedom and Justice Party earlier attempted to monopolise the assembly has yet to be met.
Now calls to boycott the run-offs are gaining momentum, both as a way out for those who refuse to choose between Shafik and Mursi, and as an attempt to convey to the new president and the powers that be that this election is not going to furnish anyone with a popular mandate. Either way, "we're stuck" appears to be the reigning sentiment.
Given such a backdrop the Mubarak trial verdict inevitably becomes a vehicle to voice wider frustrations, with the way the entire interim period has been handled and, now the conclusion is in sight, the manner of its ending. Chants raised in Tahrir since 2 June have varied between "the revolution is still in the square" and "don't be afraid to say the military has to go" to the far more significant throwback to January last year, "the people want to bring down the regime".
As the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) prepares to hand over power on 30 June there is a growing belief amongst protesters, revolutionary groups and political forces that it will be passing the keys to Shafik. The acquittal of Habib El-Adli's aides served only to emphasise the resilience of the "deep state". Mubarak maybe in Tora prison but his regime is alive and kicking. And Tahrir is roaring, again.
Attempts by political forces to capitalise on the demonstrations in Tahrir surfaced on the evening of 2 June when the idea of a "presidential council" was floated, seemingly out of nowhere, as a way out. It would include Mursi, the candidate who got the highest number of votes in the first round and a combination of either both Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh -- the candidates who came in third and fourth position -- together with Mohamed El-Baradei, who pulled out of the election race in January and boycotted the vote. Proponents of the idea argued that by refraining from competing against Shafik in the 16 June run-offs and joining a presidential council with the others, Mursi would be able to push for a de facto change. The idea had gained steam by Sunday and Monday, receiving much airtime on talk shows.
Protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere were naturally confused. The constitutional declaration, which serves as the legal framework for the interim period and the roadmap to the handing over of power, leads to an elected president. Where does this council fit in? And who decides its prerogatives?
But the "revolutionary" idea quickly disappeared. On Monday Mursi met with Sabahi and Abul-Fotouh and agreed a two-point statement, signed and released on the spot. It called for Mubarak and the symbols of his regime to face a fair trial and upped the pressure to implement the political isolation law which seeks to disqualify Shafik from the presidential race by endorsing the million-man demonstration that took place on 5 June.
During the meeting both Abul-Fotouh and Sabahi demanded that Mursi issue a document itemising the promises he has made on, among other issues, the appointment of deputies and a prime minister from outside the Muslim Brotherhood. While Mursi seemed to agree to the demand the document has not yet appeared.
In response to the demonstrations demanding his isolation Shafik launched his own attack on the Brotherhood, hurling a ragbag of accusations including being behind the 2 February 2011 massacre, better known as the Battle of the Camel, opening up dozens of prisons across the country to let out Hamas and Hizbullah prisoners and shooting protesters from the roof tops of police stations. He described the Brotherhood as both part of the old regime and the embodiment of chaos. It's unclear if his repetition of such Mubarak-era discourse has damaged or raised his popularity, but in Tahrir, Suez and Alexandria, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets on Tuesday, demands for Shafik's "political isolation" were a common chant.
Tomorrow another million-man march is scheduled to take place. It will be the sixth consecutive day of protests. It's unclear if the demonstrations will sustain momentum, but they are clearly causing discomfort for the military. On Wednesday the Supreme Constitutional Court's (SCC) spokesman announced that the court will hold a session on 14 June -- two days before the run-offs -- to "look into" both the political isolation law and an appeal contesting parliament's constitutionality on the grounds that the mixed voting system of slate and individual candidacies infringed the full exercise of political rights.
The spokesman said that court experts had finalised their assessment of both, implying that a ruling could be issued on the same day. Legal experts say that the political isolation law -- approved by parliament in April -- is flawed and unlikely to be approved by the court, but nothing is certain. The sudden decision to combine both explosive cases in one day, just 48 hours before the run-offs, has been widely interpreted as sending a political message to political forces, especially the Brotherhood, lending weight to existing concerns over the SCC's impartiality.
"The timing could change everything," FJP leader Mohamed El-Beltagui told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I hope the court's ruling drives us forward, not backward."
The court, El-Beltagui points out, received the petition questioning parliament's constitutionality months ago, so "why issue a ruling now?"
If the court accepts the appeal parliament will be dissolved, new elections will take place and the military will remain in power. If it accepts the political isolation law Shafik will be disqualified and new elections will be in order. And because perceptions of the SCC's independence have been increasingly undermined, it is the political dynamics on the ground over the next few days that will shape Egypt's future.