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'Revolutionary' movements split over Egypt's looming presidential poll

Revolutionary groups disagree over who to back and whether to participate in Egypt's upcoming presidential battle

Salma Shukrallah , Thursday 8 Mar 2012
Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

With presidential elections approaching, many expect the youth groups which played such an important role in Egypt's political life over the past year will also have a role to play in the choosing of Egypt's next head of state. The voices of the youth have not found much representation in the newly elected parliament, and it remains to be seen what their role will be over the coming months.

As elections draw closer, political groups  and activists from very different ends of the political spectrum who are used to working together are drifting apart. A movement that has been long united campaigning for an immediate handover of power and an end to military rule is now witnessing major divisions.

Emil Adel from the Popular Committee for the Defence of the Revolution in the Cairo district of Meet Oqba, a group that was formed as one of many local committees after the revolution and in defence of its demands, says: "The committee decided to raise awareness about all the revolution’s different presidential candidates. We come from different political and social backgrounds so we will not agree on one candidate. We are still not even able to agree on who should be considered the revolution’s presidential candidates; for example, I do not think Hazem Abu Ismail should be included on the list."

Adel, for his part, does not believe the movement should back an ultra-orthodox Islamist candidate. 

Candidates viewed as being sympathetic with revolutionary demands include Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabahi, Khaled Ali and Abu Ismail. Ali, who is backed by several of the revolutionary movement's leading lights, has become known for his role as a labour lawyer. Meanwhile, Abu Ismail and his campaign – unlike the rest of the Salafist movement – have become known for their active participation in recent revolutionary activity in Cairo's Tahrir Square and their support for revolutionary demands.

Sabahi, on the other hand, has long been known for his anti-Mubarak activism and enjoys the support of many of Egypt's left-leaning nationalists. Aboul-Fotouh, meanwhile, a former Muslim Brotherhood member recently expelled from the group, has the support of many of the Brotherhood's former young cadres, who had urged fellow members to participate in last year's 25 January demonstration, which triggered the 18-day uprising that unseated Mubarak (despite the Brotherhood's initial reluctance to participate). Aboul-Fotouh is also seen as a moderate – even liberal – Islamist, who enjoys the support of many young non-Islamist activists. Other groups such as Haqena (Our Right) face a similar problem, as member Ahmed Hawary explains. "Different members of our group have already become involved in different presidential campaigns. It is difficult now to reach a majority decision, and if we do it is not possible that a member would suddenly switch loyalties from one candidate to another, or take a whole new position."

Previously the "ElBaradei for President" Campaign, Haqena changed its title and activities after former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei withdrew from the race, condemning the context in which the elections are to take place as undemocratic.

ElBaradei’s basis for withdrawing has also been the reason for others to boycott. Ahmed Imam from the National Front for Justice and Democracy says: "We are boycotting the elections for several reasons. We are against electing a president whose authorities will remain unknown until after the elections, which is consistent with our initial stand that the constitution should have been drafted first."

Imam adds that another reason for boycotting is because of the group’s stand against having the elections under military rule which will, according to him, allow for deals between the military council and other political groups over who will be president and what the presidential authorities will accordingly be. Imam says that the group will be campaigning for a boycott through videos, stickers, flyers and media campaigns.

On the other hand, Manar Hussein of the Revolutionary Socialists, an active Trotskyist-influenced organisation, says that while the group also sees a problem with elections under military rule, it believes participation to be important. "Most people believe in the presidential elections and believe them to be important, and thus we should be participating if possible," says Hussein.

Consequently, the Revolutionary Socialists are debating whether any of the candidates’ programmes reflect the stance of the organisation. If no programme is found to be convincing for the group, they will find another way to participate, most likely through campaigning for a list of demands instead.   

Other organisations have also, while refraining from calling for a full boycott of the elections, expressed serious reservations about the process. The National Association for Change (NAC), a group initially formed before the revolution with several demands for the democratisation of Egypt, released a statement criticising the context in which the elections are taking place.

Their statement condemned Law 28 of the constitutional declaration announced by the ruling military council in March of last year, dictating that the results of the presidential elections are not subject to appeal. The statement also questioned the independence of the Supreme Judicial Committee supervising the elections, claiming it is under the control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

However, NAC member Mostafa Abd El-Gelil says that the association is neither concerned with calling for a boycott nor backing a candidate, but will be campaigning for its proposal as to how the constitutional committee should be formed, as the group believes this is more important for the democratisation process in Egypt.

Parallel to the presidential elections will be the formation of the constitutional committee. The parliament is expected to choose 100 members to form the committee by 24 March. The committee is to start drafting Egypt's new constitution while the presidential elections are taking place.

Similarly, the Maspero Youth Coalition, a Coptic revolutionary youth movement, has chosen to focus on the constitution instead. "No matter who becomes president, he will be guided by the constitution. As long as the constitution guarantees basic rights and freedoms, it does not really matter who is president. Whoever he is he will need to abide by them," said member Mina Thabet, when asked whether the group was concerned that many of the candidates have an Islamic political and social orientation.

To circumvent differences over a stand on the presidential elections, Mosireen, a media collective supporting citizen journalism, has decided to take a different angle on the issue. According to member Lobna Darwish, who explained that one of their members has decided to back Khaled Ali while all the others are in favour of a boycott, the group will be campaigning for a set of demands. The demands will all revolve around the revolution’s three main slogans of dignity, freedom and social justice.

The April 6 Youth Movement will go on with their original campaign, titled "Catch former regime figures." In the recent parliamentary elections, the group dedicated its time to campaigning for whom not to vote for, instead of whom to vote for.

The movement’s main concern is that whoever is chosen should not be linked to the former regime. The choice of campaign again maintains differences within the group, although according to official spokesperson Mahmoud Afifi, the group may discuss backing a particular candidate.

Some other groups are, however, almost reaching consensus. Member of the Freedom and Justice Youth Movement, Halim Henish, says the choice is now between backing Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh or Abu El-Ezz El-Hariri.

Henish explains that the movement is basing its choice upon three criteria, including the candidate’s programme and likelihood of winning. The candidate should also avoid secular versus Islamist polarisation in their campaign. Believed to have better chances of winning, Aboul-Fotouh is likely to be their candidate, says Henish.

While no consensus has been reached as to what these youth movements' role should be during the coming presidential elections, many varied campaigns are in the pipeline.

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