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Tense Mood Hangs Over Egypt Ahead of Runoff Poll

  • Davin Hutchins

Protesters take part in a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 15, 2012.

Protesters take part in a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 15, 2012.

Cairo - Late Thursday evening and into early Friday morning, protesters began to amass in Cairo's Tahrir Square after Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court and Justice Ministry issued rulings which many believe may throw the country back into an era millions of Egyptians were trying to escape when they ousted strongarm president Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising early last year.

As the country prepares for presidential runoff elections between two candidates widely considered to represent two undesirable extremes, calls are getting louder to either boycott the poll or try to invalidate it by checking both choices on the ballot slip.

Egyptians, mostly male, began making their way to Tahrir Square after a televised speech Thursday by one of the candidates, one-time prime minister under Mubarak Ahmed Shafiq, in which he hailed one of the rulings - the Supreme Court’s decision to keep him in the presidential race.

Shafiq was allowed to remain a candidate in the poll scheduled for this weekend after Egypt's highest court decided to overturn the Law of Political Isolation banning members of the former regime from running for office. The other candidate in the race, Mohamed Morsi, represents the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

Latest video from Tahrir Square by Davin Hutchins; follow @mevhutch

Another decision which sparked shock and rage among many Egyptians involved the court’s interpretation that part of the 2011 parliamentary elections were held in violation of the constitution.

The decision dissolves both the People's Assembly and the Shura Council, the legislature’s lower and upper chambers, which were dominated by conservative Islamists. Parliamentary power, for now, will reside with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces or SCAF, a group of Mubarak era generals who have been ruling the country for the past 17 months.

Video by Davin Hutchins of crowd reactions to Egypt's high court rulings
Equally disturbing for many Egyptians was the Justice Ministry’s decree granting military police and intelligence officers broad powers to arrest civilians, a task usually reserved for regular police. The new powers are reminiscent of Egypt's Emergency Laws which were put in place in 1981 and remained in force until recently, and many associate them with the repressions of previous regime.

Addressing the measures in his speech, Shafiq tried to sound reassuring.

"All the security violations that we faced during the last 15 months will be confronted with legal security measures. When security is achieved, the foreign investments will return and our economy will move forward."

Whether the military will make use of these new powers remains to be seen. There was little military or police presence in Tahrir early Friday morning. But later Friday, election boycotters, Morsi supporters and opponents of military rule all plan marches to Tahrir and other public squares in Egypt.

Many Egyptians expressed palpable anger mixed with political exhaustion and disbelief when asked about Thursday’s rulings. Mohamed, 27, saw the hand of the SCAF behind the Supreme Court’s decision to let Shafiq compete in the poll.

"[Through] the resolution the military council is placing Shafiq as an imposed reality. We are not going to accept that; there is no need to vote now because we know voting isn't necessary. These people have trampled our votes and our freedom," said Mohamed.

Others, even though they seemed to represent the minority of those gathered in Tahrir, did express satisfaction with the ruling.

"These rulings are the best thing the court could have done because if the Muslim Brotherhood took over parliament, or wrote the constitution, or gave the country its next president, we would go back to our same situation," said a man who did not identify himself.

Joining a chorus of chants denouncing Egypt’s current military rulers, was another unidentified man.

"I tell the military council and Shafiq, if he is threatening the people with military forces, we are as strong as the military forces. And if they come to Tahrir Square to assault us, we will assault them," said he.

Another man, also called Mohamed, also 27, just sounded resigned.

"We did a huge revolution and it blew up in our face. We were in a dream but nothing changed and now the old system is reproducing itself."

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