In the hours before Egyptians head to the polls in a runoff presidential election, the revolutionaries whose movement prompted the vote were in disarray. With no candidate, and following a judicial ruling that dissolved the parliament elected last fall, some revolutionaries conceded Friday their failure to win real reforms has exposed a lack of organization and strategy.
With two days of voting beginning Saturday, they acknowledged that their only plan now is to stop Ahmed Shafik, a holdover from the regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, from winning the election and taking back the state through the ballot box. Although Shafik appears to be the frontrunner, rebels spent Friday grudgingly urging allies to vote for his rival, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi, hours after some had called on him to withdraw.
“The revolution was hijacked by a military that wanted to carry out a coup. And the Brotherhood is killing the revolution,” said Mohammed Hasan, 21, an education student and member of the April 6th revolutionary group, as he marched to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “But I have no choice. I must vote for Morsi or die.”
Egypt on Friday in many ways resembled the state before Mubarak stepped down 16 months ago in what was originally called a revolution. Mubarak’s vast, opaque system of government remained intact, still guided by the ruling council of military generals and backed by a Mubarak-created judiciary. The revolutionaries who called for major change were a fractured group, too weak to go head-to-head against that system. Egypt’s most organized political force, the Brotherhood, reached for power even as other anti-regime elements feared what kind of Egypt they might create.
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At least two parliament members who ran under the banner of revolution announced that they’d support Shafik, Mubarak’s former prime minister, in what seemed to be a political calculation.
“I was the happiest person when the ruling” dissolved parliament, said one of the lawmakers, Mohammed Abu Hamed. “I saw the way the Brotherhood worked in parliament. The way they pushed their views and opinions was frightening. Shafik is the most capable of fulfilling the demands of the revolution.”
Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that one-third of the parliament had been elected illegally during last fall’s elections. State-backed judges said afterward that the entire legislative body – comprised largely of Muslim Brotherhood members – must be dissolved, leaving the ruling military council as the only political entity that could draft laws and potentially craft a new constitution.
A day earlier, the military council announced that troops could arrest civilians for a broad range of reasons in what appeared to be the return of marital law, just weeks after a three-decade emergency law had expired. Military vehicles surrounded Parliament Friday, preventing former members from entering without permission, and armored vehicles appeared throughout the city, signaling a military overtly in charge of the state.
In a desperate attempt to recreate the momentum that led to the fall of Mubarak’s regime, a few thousand marched to Tahrir Square Friday to protest the ruling, some at times setting posters of Shafik on fire. But with Morsi on the ballot, the Brotherhood, whose participation galvanized the anti-Mubarak protests last year, did not call their members to the streets and the revolutionaries could not create large turnout on their own. The crowds were small enough that marchers recognized friends en route to the square.
Even those marching, however, couldn’t agree on whether to vote for Morsi or boycott altogether. Some wore stickers calling for a boycott, drawing the ire of those marching next to them.
“There is no strategy because we have no strategists,” said a frustrated Ahmed Naquib, spokesman for the a group called the Trustees Council for the Revolution. “This is how we ended up here.”
The outcome of this weekend’s voting would determine the way ahead, the revolutionaries said. If Morsi wins, many revolutionaries believe the Brotherhood leader could push back against the powerful generals and the ex-regime figures they’re believed to be allied with, and could revive hopes of real reform. If Shafik wins, this argument goes, the regime will again control all branches of government, and some revolutionaries feared they could eventually be jailed for speaking out against the state.
Revolutionary group leaders said they conducted a half-dozen meetings after Thursday’s ruling, including some where they urged Muslim Brotherhood members to withdraw from the elections. If the Brotherhood participated, they argued, it would legitimize a flawed process that had already seen the judiciary undo the results of the elections . Some younger Brotherhood members agreed but the group’s leadership decided to keep Morsi on the ballots, apparently calculating that he could still win, said three revolutionaries who attended the meetings.
Even if Morsi doesn’t win, the Brotherhood could claim the election was rigged “and taint the state,” said Mohammed Abbas, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who left last year to form the Egypt Current Party, a youth bloc.
The meetings ended at 3 a.m., Abbas said, and he and his comrades spent Friday fighting back feelings of frustration and disillusionment. They talked about how their work would take years. They blamed each other for not rallying around a leader following Mubarak’s fall. Many said they took no joy in voting for Morsi and that if the movement could survive, there would be an eventual showdown between the Brotherhood and the revolutionaries.
“I see a coming revolution against the Brotherhood,” Abbas said. “It will take five years because we need that time to organize. It will happen when we can mobilize the way the Brotherhood does.”