Political faultlines abound as Egypt returns to Tahrir Square

Protests in Cairo today were ostensibly focused on Egypt's military rulers. But the division between protesters, as the country heads towards presidential elections, was the real tale.

Fredrik Persson/AP
A protester holds a banner depicting presidential candidates Omar Suleiman, Ahmed Shafik, and Amr Moussa behind bars at a protest at Tahir Square in Cairo, Friday, April 20.

Thousands of protesters from across the political divide took to Tahrir Square today. Ostensibly united for a common goal, the competing camps of protesters revealed deepening divisions amid Egypt's ever-more turbulent transition.

“On the inside, the protest is divided,” says Rafik Atif, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, a secular political group among those that called for the demonstration. “But overall we are here to say: Bring down SCAF.” "SCAF" is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the junta that has run Egypt since Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Youth Movement, and fans of former Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, among others, rallied against SCAF and called for an end to military rule. Speeches and chants boomed across a bustling crowd from over a dozen stages, large and small, attempting to revive the revolutionary spirit.

But despite the simple official message of the day, "SCAF Out!", the unity of purpose of 2011 has been replaced by sharp political divisions within the protest movement itself, as Egypt seeks to forge its next phase. A presidential election is scheduled for May 23. The writing of a new Egyptian Constitution is still up in the air, but it's scheduled to be done this year.

What's next? “There is a lot of opacity as to what is going on,” says Michael Wahid Hanna of The Century Foundation.

The pre-election period has not been smooth and has frequently been upset by startling developments – first when the Muslim Brotherhood announced they would field a candidate in the presidential race despite claims over the last year that they would not do so. Former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman then submitted his presidential bid, sparking outrage among critics who sought a flattening of Mubarak's regime when they ousted the dictator in last year's 18-day uprising.

Further upsetting the political sphere, the court suspended the nation’s constituent assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution. And this week, the presidential election commission barred ten contenders including Mr. Suleiman, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat al-Shater, and Mr. Abu Ismail from running. 


“I’m here because Hazem Abu Ismail was removed from the race,” said protester Khaled Hassan, carrying a poster of the banned presidential hopeful as he made his way through the square. Like thousands of others, he believes the decision to bar Abu Ismail over his mother’s reported US citizenship is unjust.

Some critics blame the governing council for the barring of the 10 nominees and believe the group of ruling generals is interfering in the election. The truth of these assertions is unclear.

“There are a lot of competing centers of authority,” Mr. Hanna says, adding that it's difficult to judge whether the court or election commission acted on their own or if the military politicized thee decisions. 

Calls for Friday’s protest came after Suleiman entered the election. But following his disqualification, the reason for the rally depended on who you asked. 

Many protesters Friday called for the cancellation of Article 28 of last year's Constitutional Declaration, which makes the presidential election committee immune to challenge.

Despite at least one unified demand, rhetoric in the square revealed the divisions between Egypt's "opposition" groups.

Some Muslim Brotherhood members called for complete removal of the felool, or “remnants” of Mubarak’s regime, while April 6 demanded a constituent assembly with less Brotherhood influence and more representative, in their opinion, of Egyptian society as a whole. The Salafis, more theocratic in outlook than the Brotherhood, were deeply concerned with the fate of Abu Ismail.

More politics, more problems

“Last year, things were much simpler,” laments writer and blogger Bassem Sabry about the 18-day uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. “There was one enemy and the goal was very clear, to topple the enemy, and the square was 100 percent unified. Today you have Islamists, liberals, [soccer fans known as] Ultras, non-aligned protesters. All these different political forces are fighting to influence political decisions toward one direction or another, with these directions often contradictory.”

After long avoiding demonstrations, the Brotherhood rejoined the protest movement last week with a march on Tahrir – a move that upset some secular groups who believe the Brotherhood is only protesting to achieve their organizational ambitions.

“The Islamists are coming to hijack the protest movement,” says Amal Sharaf, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, who protested in Tahrir. “When we needed them to come, they didn’t. They only came when they needed us.”

The rifts are probably damaging the effectiveness of protest politics. “The protesters are divided over so many ideas and demands that I feel it will end up doing nothing at the end,” Mr. Sabry said.

While Friday's protest drew thousands, analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood is not seeking to ignite a slew of massive demonstrations like those that swept the nation beginning January 25 last year. Instead, it is a show of force for the 84-year old organization.

Egypt at large has grown weary of protests. The 2011 uprising wreaked havoc on the economy and sent tourism rates to a stifling low. “I don’t like the protest today,” says a trinket shop owner named Hassan whose business in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek declined 80 percent over the last year. “Why? Because these kind of protests are the reason we don’t have any business now.”  

And not all Egyptians view SCAF as the enemy. Many are sympathetic to the notion that order and stability are what the country needs going forward, and appeal for patience.

But some groups insist that they will keep up their calls for change. Abu Ismail’s supporters have called for a sit-in, and the April 6 Youth Movement will persist with their various demands. “This is the beginning of a series of protests,” Sharaf said, “and the revolutionary spirit will come again.”

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