In a Divided Egypt, the Military and Islamists Play for Political Advantage

Five weeks after Mubarak yielded his presidency to the unified masses of Tahrir Square, Egypt's could-be revolution is a deeply divided mess


CAIRO, Egypt -- On a traffic island-based podium in Tahrir Square, an activist concluded his call for Egyptians to vote down tomorrow's referendum on proposed constitutional amendments, and music started playing. But barely one-hundred feet away on the same traffic island, another activist standing on another podium was still in the middle of his speech, similarly railing against the proposed constitutional amendments. And when his speech ended, music -- different music -- started playing. Meanwhile, a few hundred feet away, a speaker on a third podium was urging people to vote "no," competing with the ugly cacophony of two dissonant songs playing in the not-so-background. As for the speaker on the fourth podium, well, it was a bit hard to hear him and few people bothered listening anyway.
Five weeks after Hosni Mubarak yielded his presidency to the unified masses of Tahrir Square, Egypt's could-be revolution is a deeply divided mess. The multi-partisan groups of youth activists who spearheaded the revolt can no longer agree on whether they should continue demonstrating, and even those who wish to demonstrate can no longer coordinate their speakers, schedules, or locations. Moreover, there are significant splits among youth activists within these groups, as well as between the members of these groups and the parent organizations with which they are affiliated as individuals.
These divisions can be traced, in part, to the Muslim Brotherhood's call for its members to vote "yes" on the constitutional amendments. The Brotherhood is the only opposition movement supporting the amendments, and the presence of its youth members within certain revolutionary groups has put pressure on those groups to stay away from Tahrir Square.
"We are afraid that some tragedies will occur between those saying yes and no, especially now that the Muslim Brotherhood is saying yes," said Shadi el-Ghazali Harb, a representative of the Democratic Front Party (DFP) in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth on Thursday evening. "We did not want to show this image in the world, so we're directing our efforts to distributing pamphlets."
But still other revolutionary groupings, such as the Union of Revolutionary Youth and a gathering of independents (cue Life of Brian), had promised to demonstrate, as did the DFP. "But it called for people without organizing them," said activist Bilal Diab.
The divisions among these organizations and today's relatively paltry turnout in Tahrir Square bolster the military's bid to end its direct governance of the country as soon as possible. The passage of tomorrow's referendum is essential to that aim, because it would allow new presidential and parliamentary elections to be held within the next six months. Alternatively, if the referendum fails, it would leave the military scrambling for a new way forward.
For this reason, the military has taken a number of steps in the past few days to tip the scales in its favor. Last night, soldiers policed the sidewalks of Tahrir Square to keep people moving, apparently hoping to prevent activists from staging another overnight sit-in. The military further ordered state-run television stations to stop featuring critics of the proposed constitutional amendments after Thursday. And on Friday, soldiers surrounded protesters at various locations around Tahrir Square, keeping the crowds contained and thereby discouraging more people from joining in.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the military fulfilled its promise for judicial oversight of tomorrow's referendum by including 47 dead justices and 52 justices no longer working in Egypt on its list of judicial monitors. In response, 2000 judges threatened not to participate in supervising the referendum, which opens the possibility of widespread fraud -- most likely in the military's favor. There are also irregularities in the distribution of polling stations. For example, there is only one polling station in the relatively liberal, densely populated Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, but 47 in Talkha, a small village in the Nile Delta, where the pro-amendments Muslim Brotherhood is strongest.
Many Egyptians are already starting to feel dispirited. "I feel that I'm being led astray," said Yasmin Amin. "We're going to get hit on the back of the neck."
Not all Egyptians are dispirited, though. The increasing likelihood that the referendum will pass has energized the Muslim Brotherhood, which was reportedly campaigning in its strongholds earlier today. In contrast to the innumerable non-Islamist opposition groups and parties that are still competing for attention, the Muslim Brotherhood has an effective network of members and supporters that it can mobilize at any time. And the sooner that Egypt holds its elections, the greater the Muslim Brotherhood's advantage over its amateurish opponents.
"If there is an election tomorrow, they will win," said Amir Raouf, who protested against the amendments.
But the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't seem too concerned either way. "If we run elections tomorrow, the Muslim Brotherhood will win the number of seats they challenge," said Islam Lotfy, who represents the Muslim Brotherhood Youth on the Coalition. "And if it's in three months, they'll gain the same seats. And if they want to do it in two years, they will also win. Because they're well organized and have a big constituency."
The passage of the amendment, however, would probably undermine the Brotherhood's cooperation with other movements. "I expect that if the referendum turns out to be yes, the tensions between us and the Brotherhood will rise," said Harb.
Indeed, the post-Mubarak honeymoon has ended. And the trials of transition begin tomorrow.