Monday, June 18, 2012

Mubarak’s shadow and the Egyptian vote

IN THE FACE of continuing unrest in Egypt, street protests approaching the intensity of that of the Arab Spring, and the choice of two equally polarizing candidates set to assume the nation’s presidency, the specter of Mohammed Hosni Mubarak will not go gentle into his long-awaited good night.

After Mubarak was convicted on June 2 for responsibility for ordering the killing of 800 Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators in early 2011, Egypt's top prosecutor appealed the verdicts, acquitting the former president and his two sons on corruption charges, an official told The Associated Press.

“Under Egyptian law, the prosecutor must appeal the entire verdict, which also included convictions and life sentences for Mubarak and his former security chief for failing to stop the killing of protesters in the uprising that ousted him last year,” The AP reported.

The trial was long awaited. “Mubarak's trial was ... a critical reminder of the shared grievances that led the vast majority of Egyptians to lend at least tacit support to the revolution.” Aaron Ross reported earlier this month in The Huffington Post.

“The response of the array of political and activist forces -- from Ultras to Islamists -- now protesting in the thousands in Cairo and other major cities appears to mark the largest mobilization of broad-based opposition politics since last fall. If anyone had begun to question just how hated Hosni Mubarak is, the answer is in the streets now.”

It’s a given that the street has been the avenue of the dynamic of Egypt’s social unrest. But was the answer also in the polling places and ballot boxes? After months of unrest and violence, would Egyptians follow through on their distaste for Mubarak’s autocratic rule? That’s what hung in the balance for Saturday and Sunday’s national elections, pitting Mohammed Morsi, darling of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party, against Ahmed Shafiq, a distrusted holdover from the Mubarak regime who vowed to restore law and order to the Egyptian streets.

The apparent winner: Morsi ... and the Egyptian military, the same Egyptian military that has functioned for decades as the right arm of ... Hosni Mubarak.

“With parliament dissolved [on June 14] and martial law effectively in force, the generals issued an interim constitution making themselves Egypt's lawmakers, taking control over the budget and granting themselves the power to determine who writes the permanent constitution that will define the country's future,” reported Sarah Al Deeb and Neal Keath of the AP on Sunday.

One Egyptian said it best: “"We got rid of one devil and got 19," said Mohammed Kanouna, referring to Mubarak and the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mubarak patrons who’d already consolidated their grip on government power in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster in February, and whose power grab this weekend sets the stage for a clash of wills between Morsi, apparently the populist victor, and the Egyptian military that’s been synonymous with Mubarak for generations.

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The result: Post-election malaise. "Things have not changed at all. It is as if the revolution never happened," Ayat Maher, a 28-year-old mother of three, told The AP in Cairo. It’s a sign of her own disillusionment — maybe the same mirrored by her countrymen and women — that she said she voted for Morsi, but held out slim hopes for him. Or for the change her vote was intended to begin.

"The same people are running the country,” she said. “The same oppression and the same sense of enslavement. They still hold the keys to everything."

Dr. Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, isn’t optimistic, either. For him, writing an op-ed for Al Jazeera, the election was tragically inconclusive, “an epic culmination to a week drenched in political dramas and twists that do not bode well for Egypt's bifurcated polity, now threatened with uncertainty, sclerosis and the potential for violence.”

The true depths of their frustration may not be known until Thursday, when the final results are announced. But credit the Egyptians for taking a stand. In their first shot at a functioning democracy, the fact of having a choice wasn’t lost on the 24 million people who turned out. Ironically, regardless of whoever they sided with, their place at the polls, the fact of their showing up was an intrinsic endorsement of the idea of democracy — call it casting a vote for the idea of casting a vote.

We’ll see how flagrantly the Egyptian military chiefs will try to cast that vote aside in this, the start of the Arab summer.

Image credits: Mubarak and Egyptian voter: Al Jazeera.

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