Europe’s bloody communist past might not be an obvious place to look for historical parallels to Egypt’s presidential elections last week. But Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a founding member of one of Egypt’s most influential protests groups, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, thinks that his country’s activists would do well to remember the Romanian Revolution that took place more than 20 years ago.
On Christmas Day 1989, Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad following a wave of popular protests that toppled his rule. A cadre of regime apparatchiks soon seized power, eventually leading to the landslide election of their leader, Ion Iliescu.
“The youth led that revolution,” el-Ghazaly Harb says. “But just after the new Romanian president got elected, they made a mistake by demonstrating against him. Iliescu told them that they were opposed to democracy, so he prosecuted them and wiped them out.”
It’s a scenario that el-Ghazaly Harb worries could come to pass in Egypt, which is now facing a runoff vote between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mosi and the surprise second-place finisher Ahmed Shafik—a former Air Force chief, Mubarak crony, and self-styled political ironman.
Shafik has vowed that he will use “executions and brute force” to suppress protestors if elected president in the June 16 runoff. Mosi has struck a more emollient tone, promising to respect the rights of protesters. But for many Egyptian activists—the more liberal of whom view the party with suspicion and disdain—the runoff vote has placed them in an excruciating bind. If they hit the streets, they risk being cast as enemies of democracy. But if they hold back, the past 18 months of revolutions and bloodshed will appear to have been in vain, particularly if Shafik is elected.
Sensing the dilemma, and taking his cue from the Romanian history, el-Ghazaly Harb has proposed a startling tactical volte face—give up on street protests, which have been a crucial tool for Egypt’s young activists ever since last January’s demonstrations in Tahrir Square. “If we continue doing it, we will be prosecuted in some way,” he says.
Instead, el-Ghazaly Harb thinks protesters should spend the next six months focusing on low-level activism, educating workers and spearheading awareness campaigns. But most importantly, they should bide their time. “I don’t think Ahmed Shafik will be president by next year,” he added, insinuating that Egypt could face another period of immense upheaval if the former military man wins the vote.
Other activists, still dumbfounded by last week’s election results, also believe the time has come to shift gears. “Our problem was we didn’t understand the street,” said Mona Dadeir, a member of the influential April 6 protest movement, which is allied with el-Ghazaly Harb’s Revolutionary Youth Coalition. “We told ourselves we were speaking on behalf of the Egyptian people, and this is not the situation.”
But not all protesters are convinced that abandoning the street—however temporarily—is a wise idea.
Ramy el-Swissy, a founding member of April 6, agreed that tactics had to change, but suggested that the weapon of protest should never be wholly decommissioned. “We will change, but in a very smart way,” he said.
Last week’s first-round election results have raised uncomfortable questions for Egyptian activists. Shafik surged into second place on 23.6 percent of the vote, with five and a half million people lured towards his program of law-and-order politics.
The figures suggest that a sizeable constituency are sick of revolutionary politics and even sicker of the revolutionaries behind it.
Yet activists tell a different tale, citing the votes cast for the main "revolutionary" candidates—left-winger Hamdeen Sabahi and reform-minded Islamist Abdel Moneim Abel Fotouh.
Between them, the two men got nearly 9 million votes, or around 37 percent of the total—a clear suggestion, say protesters, that there is a substantial majority standing against the regime and yearning for radical change.
“Altogether, the voice of the majority is the voice of the revolution,” said Nancy Okail, a NGO chief who faced trial earlier this year during a government crackdown on civil-rights groups.
Despite being pole-axed by last week’s results, many anti-establishment activists have found succor in the form of Hamdeen Sabahi—a man now referred to as the “president of the revolution” due to his iconoclast credentials and relative electoral success.
As the de facto representative of the protest movement—and the man who could get activists back out on the streets—Sabahi is being pressured by protesters to wring concessions out of the two remaining candidates. With the unspoken threat of further civil disobedience behind him, he would appear to have some leverage.
But activists would do well to revisit the lesson of Eastern Europe. In a dispiriting epilogue to the Romanian Revolution, officials in the deeply ensconced communist system simply became the richly rewarded kleptocrats of its capitalist successor.
Given how much of Egypt’s ancient regime still remains, it could prove just as difficult to budge.