Tahrir Square: snapshot of revolution

A huge gathering in central Cairo on 29 July 2011 is a measure of the fluid state of Egypt’s political transformation, says Vidar Helgesen.
Vidar Helgesen
3 August 2011

For months, one of the big debates among Egypt's revolution groups has been: elections or constitution first? A banner held up in Tahrir Square at the large assembly of Cairo’s citizens on 29 July 2011 reflects an even more profound concern: "revolution first!"

While writing these lines I am watching a steady flow of people toward Tahrir Square in what is expected to be the biggest popular demonstration for months. Even as the spirit of unity which marked Egypt’s revolution has been replaced by political contestation over the difficult questions inherent to any democratisation process, most groups support this gathering at the revolution’s symbolic heart.

Yet many Egyptians worry that their revolution has turned into a coup d'état. The military is a deeply respected institution, and many appreciate that no other body may have been able to ensure stability after the popular uprising that began on 25 January 2011. At the same time, faced with the intricacies of governing in a messy political transition, the military has had to make choices on issues it is not used to tackling and that are divisive in society. Almost inevitably, therefore, the institution has become less of a unifying factor.

Moreover, the military style of decision-making is understandably very far from the democratic practices called for by the revolution. There is a widespread understanding that difficult choices need to be made and that it is impossible to satisfy everyone, but there is also a growing impatience that citizen inclusion and participation are far from being realised in the process of making those decisions. Youth groups feel that "their" revolution is being hijacked, women groups feel that their situation is getting worse, many political parties feel that the electoral process is being designed to perpetuate entrenched interests.

This mix of elements explains the call for "revolution first": an ironic twist to a rather general sentiment among the revolutionaries.

The international dimension

This being said, there are significant differences between the various actors. In meeting the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party on 28 July, I noted a high level of confidence (and not least professionalism as far as building a party goes) and a desire to move forward toward elections despite their objections to the new election law. Liberal groups, by contrast, are eager to have an agreement across the political spectrum on some basic principles to guide the drafting of the new constitution: they fear that if delayed until after the elections, it will be impossible to achieve unity on such principles. A key underlying issue is how the Egyptian state will be defined through the new constitution (Islamic, secular or civil) - and what such labels actually imply.

Another notable development is a controversy around international engagement. While the revolution was remarkably national in focus, the current climate is marked by speculation about international actors and their motivation, triggered not least by announcements from the United States of financial support for Egyptian NGOs. The April 6 movement, a group which called for political change long before the revolution (at a time when the international community essentially teamed up behind Hosni Mubarak), has been accused of being an agent for foreign interests.

There seem to be at least three positions on the question of international engagement: a reluctance towards it that reflects traditional anxieties and is based on Egypt's considerable capacities, resources and pride; a politically motivated game of accusing opponents; and a welcoming attitude, tempered by nervousness about becoming the target of such accusations.

The decision by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces not to accept international observation of the elections provisionally rescheduled for October (parliamentary) and November (presidential) 2011 is part of this controversy. Many parties and groups believe, however, that this decision is based on a misunderstanding: they don't want international supervision of elections but the distinction between the concepts of supervision, monitoring and observation of elections may not have been clear. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, for example, is explicit in welcoming international election observation, as are many other political parties.

The disagreements and controversies which mark current political debate in Egypt notwithstanding, most groups are ready to coalesce in Tahrir Square when, as on 29 July, the occasion demands it. They seem at least to share in the concern that the pace and direction of developments under the current military supervision is not responding to the aspirations of the revolution.

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