Messy Democracy

Egypt Clashes: A Revolution Hangover

The nation’s first free elections have been marred by deadly clashes in Cairo. Is another revolt on the way?

Khaled Desouki / AFP-Getty Images

For three straight days, a spasm of violence has gripped Cairo, leaving 13 people dead and scores wounded. Egyptian authorities declared a curfew in parts of the city over the weekend and put large numbers of armored vehicles on the streets of several neighborhoods.

On the surface, the protests are about the disqualification of a presidential candidate on technical grounds.

But even as the demonstrators held up posters of their banned candidate, the Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, others described a broader reason for the protests: a rising fear that the military council which has ruled Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago will refuse to cede power to civilian leaders next month.

The council, known by its acronym SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), is assuring Egyptians that its rule will end on June 30, after the second round of presidential elections. Since SCAF assumed power 14 months ago, Egyptians have already elected two chambers of Parliament.

The presidential vote, which starts later this month, will largely determine the outcome of the Egyptian revolution.

But a series of moves by SCAF over the past year, including aggressive crackdowns against demonstrators and the arrest of some SCAF critics, has carved deep suspicions in the minds of many Egyptians.

When the council announced last week that it might hand over power this month, if the first-round results from the presidential elections are decisive, what many Egyptians heard wasn’t an offer to return to the barracks earlier than scheduled but a subtle declaration that SCAF might cede control—or might not at all.

“We should not have allowed the military to take over because they are not qualified for this. They try to divide the nation and rule it,” said Mosen Gaver, a demonstrator at Tahrir Square, where thousands gathered over the weekend.

Abu Ismail had been one of the frontrunners in the election campaign, a deeply conservative Islamist who held up the Iranian revolution as a model and vowed to end the peace treaty with Israel.

The Electoral Commission overseeing the presidential vote disqualified him last month after it determined that his late mother had held American citizenship, which under Egyptian law made him ineligible to hold the country’s highest office.

But not all the demonstrators in the weekend protests were Abu Ismail supporters. Some described themselves as liberals—the very people who had launched the successful revolt against the Mubarak regime more than a year ago.

Many of them now feel disappointed at the course the revolution has taken.

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Said Sadek, a political sociologist who participated in the protests that brought down Mubarak last year, says in retrospect, Egypt’s Arab Spring was “a mix of a popular revolution and a military coup.”

“Egypt is in the surgery room at the moment, and in surgery you see ugly things,” said Sadek, who teaches at the American University in Cairo.

He didn’t rule out the possibility that the SCAF would try to find some pretext to postpone the presidential vote or overrule the results. But he also said the council fears the waves of protests that such a move would generate.

After several disqualifications by the Electoral Commission, the election seems to have boiled down to a race between two frontrunners: Amr Moussa, who served for years as foreign minister in Mubarak’s regime, and Abdel Moneim Abol Fatouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is running as an independent.

Sadek said the alignment meant liberals, who captured only a minority of seats in Parliament, had effectively been left powerless.

Will the rest of Egypt’s protesters end up in the same predicament?