Egyptian political forces go to the polls in a fortnight’s time as polarised and divided as they have ever been. While the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are readying themselves for a ballot-box victory they believe they well deserve after the major role they played in bringing down the Mubarak regime, their liberal and secular adversaries are busy devising schemes to ensure that such a victory does not give the Islamists a free rein in drafting the country's new constitution, which will be written under the supervision of the newly elected parliament.
On the other hand, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's de facto ruler in the transitional period, is the one political grouping set to gain the most from this division. The SCAF's early promises of handing over power in six months have now been replaced by a murky and open-ended transitional road-map that leaves the military in power for all of next year and possibly for a good part of 2013 as well. Even more disheartening is the set of supra-constitutional principles that the military now seeks to impose on the future constituent assembly charged with drafting the country's new constitution. These proposed principles include the right of the SCAF to veto any legislation concerning the army, as well as to bar parliament from overseeing the military budget.
As I write, the battle that has long been raging between those in favour of the supra-constitutional principles and those against them is about to draw to a conclusion one way or the other. A document containing the proposed supra-constitutional principles, prepared by deputy prime minister Aly El-Selmy, was submitted for discussion two weeks ago, and it will either be passed or abandoned some time soon. When it was first brought to public attention, the document caused uproar, as its main purpose seemed to be to entrench the position of the army above the legislature, making the military what some have called “a state above the state.”
Some of the more controversial articles have now (Tuesday 15 November) been amended, and the fate of the document should be decided before Friday 18 November, the date set by the Islamists, including the Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to take to the streets of many of Egypt's major cities if what is now popularly known as “El-Selmy's document” is not dropped.
It is not yet clear whether this threat will be carried through, as the Brotherhood is well aware that such a move might turn out to be a double-edged sword. When the rank and file of the more orthodox Islamist groups responded to a similar call on one Friday this summer and converged on Tahrir Square from the provinces outside Cairo, their sheer numbers sent shock waves through the country’s liberal and secular forces, prompting them to call that Friday "Kandahar Friday", as a snub to the many people dressed in a similar fashion to Afghanistan's Taliban who had filled the streets of downtown Cairo.
On an organisational level, the Brotherhood should not be confused with the orthodox Salafists, but it should nevertheless not be forgotten that at the level of popular sentiment, such groups are closer to the Brotherhood than they are to any other political force in the country. And it is these Salafists and their various demands that most scare moderate Egyptians and could drive them away from voting for the Brotherhood. As a result, the latter group has been keen to distance itself at least politically from the salafists. A lot will now depend on whether a compromise of sorts regarding El-Selmy’s document can be reached between the Brotherhood and the SCAF before Friday, as the existing balance of power is so precarious that a Friday marked by mass Islamist mobilisation a few days from election day on 28 November could easily wreck it and ruin the electoral process that the Brotherhood so desperately yearns for.
The power of the Islamists notwithstanding, there are also other minor radical forces among the young that are against elections being held in the present uncertain state of affairs, these arguing that the Revolution has now been nigh-on lost and that there is a need to re-ignite its spark by confronting the SCAF head on. Such groups have been leading a bold and brave campaign against military trials for civilians and other military violations of human rights for several months now, and while this has caught public attention it has not so far drawn a large following.
The arrest two weeks ago of the well-known blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah and the attempt to press serious charges against him, such as allegations that he assaulted soldiers who were on duty, is an attempt by the SCAF to deter and silence such groups before the anti-SCAF movement spreads to larger sections of the population. Resentment of the SCAF is growing, and the calculation would seem to be that if the elections are allowed to take their planned three-month course (the period stipulated for electing both the lower and upper houses of parliament), the SCAF will be able to regain some of the popularity it enjoyed at the beginning of the January uprising, when most people believed the army was going to hand over power in a few months.
On the other hand, there are also many observers who believe that the present level of violence that is spreading in the country, especially in the provinces, is bound to escalate once the elections process is set in motion, and that this could furnish the SCAF with the opportunity it needs to call off the elections and impose a state of martial law until calm is restored.
If this happens, then we are back full-circle to the situation in 1954, when the Free Officers, who had overthrown the monarchy in July 1952, liquidated all existing political parties and ruled the country single-handed, continuing to do so in subsequent incarnations until a few months ago. In order to comfort ourselves against a doomsday scenario of this sort, we could at least remember that history does not repeat itself.