A small but passionate crowd of around 2,000 Egyptians marched Friday to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to express dissatisfaction with the two court rulings issued the day before dissolving the recently elected parliament and declaring Mubarak era official Ahmed Shafiq’s presidential bid constitutional. The court’s decisions cleared the way for the ruling military council to take over the parliament’s legislative powers. Observers say the rulings also positioned the perceived military-favored candidate, Shafiq, to win the executive, and threw into question the independence of the judiciary.
Following afternoon prayers, members of pro-democracy movements, political parties, youth groups, and the campaign of former presidential contender and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh gathered in the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen to march together under the slogan “No to the soft military coup”.
Video of the march and protesters’ reactions by Davin Hutchins; follow @mevhutch
Protesters carried anti-Shafiq and anti-military signs, and chanted “Egypt is a country, not a barracks,” and “Shafiq is Mubarak.” Reflecting the outrage many Egyptians are feeling toward Shafiq - a symbol of the old regime, and now, for many a symbol of the failed transition process - demonstrators tore down Shafiq election posters, hit them with their shoes, then laid them out on the street so that cars and motorcycles would run over them.
Demonstrators demanded Shafiq’s disqualification from the presidential runoff election, and called for the creation of a presidential council to manage the affairs of the country - a last-ditch attempt to avoid the ‘lesser-of-two evils runoff,’ as it has been called by many Egyptians, between the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister, Shafiq.
Sadeeqa Abu Saada lagged behind the march to stand on the median of a busy street, handing out flyers to passing cars that explained the need for a presidential council. The flyer outlines a body made up of Hamdeen Sabbahi, the Nasserist who took third place in the first round, former presidential candidate Aboul Fotouh, socialist Abu Ezz el-Hariri, and Morsi - “just to have everyone involved,” she said.
Others passed around stickers for the so-called Mubatelun campaign, which calls on voters to invalidate their ballots during Saturday’s and Sunday’s election, under the logic that enough invalidations would undercut the legitimacy of the poll.
Images by Davin Hutchins & Yuli Weeks
One demonstrator, Ahmed, 25, said he believes that the runoff election proves that there has been no change in Egypt. “Even [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton said on CNN that there was a revolution in Tunisia and Libya, and there is one now in Syria. But in Egypt and in Yemen, there have only been reforms. The regime is just as it always was,” he said.
“[The military council] thinks we’re idiots,” he added. “That when they change the person at the top, we’ll think there has been a regime change. But we’re not idiots.”
Ahmed, who said he had lost several friends to clashes with the police over the past 18 months, voted for Aboul Fotouh in the first round. This weekend, he said he would cast his vote for Morsi. He emphasized, “I’m not convinced with the elections. I think it will go to Shafiq. But I’ll do what I can by voting for Morsi.”
However, the outrage seemed to be confined to the small crowd of demonstrators - others were simply annoyed that the march was blocking traffic along the busy Qasr el-Nil bridge that connects Tahrir to Mohandiseen.
“Few people are on the streets because of the mass media,” explained Ahmed. “And the military controls the mass media here. It distorts our image to the people, tells them that we are thugs who want to rob the country.”
And the military has a powerful lever in its hands - security.
Since January 28 of last year, the notorious day on which the police forces retreated from the streets, every day Egyptians have been craving security in a way almost nostalgic for the days under the heavy-handed Mubarak regime. Shafiq, who markets himself as the law-and-order candidate, plays well into those fears and desires, many observers note.
Another demonstrator, Sadeeqa Abu Saada, attributed the rather small turnout to sheer exhaustion. “A lot of people share our feeling of rage,” she said. “But remember that it’s been almost two years. We’ve been out on the streets, many people have been hurt. So, some people are saving their energy for when they are sure -like when [the election results] are forged and Shafiq comes to power.”
Despite the rationalizations for the low turnout that were given - the biased media, the lack of security, and exhaustion - the march called into question the usefulness of activists’ continued use of street politics to try to change the course of institutional politics.
Abu Saada, who voted in the first round for leftist candidate Khaled Ali, who garnered just half of one percent of the vote, now says she believes the electoral process is rigged in the military’s favor. “I’m here because it’s all a farce,” she said. “The military will put Shafiq in power.”
For the runoff, she intends to invalidate her vote but not immediately. She says she will wait until the second day of the runoff to go to the polls, concerned that ballot boxes unwatched overnight are vulnerable to tampering. “We don’t know what will happen during this dark night,” she said.
Another demonstrator, Um Mohamed, was dressed in a long, black veil with a cloth band tied around her head that read “Down with military rule.” Like the others, she was against Shafiq, who she believes represents a return to the old regime. She said she plans to vote for Morsi, arguing that “the Muslim Brotherhood has always been with us in the revolution.”
However, Abu Saada contested Brotherhood’s revolutionary credentials, calling them political opportunists who have aligned themselves with revolutionary forces when it was convenient, and abandoned them just as quickly.
“The choice they put you between - the tyrants of the military and the tyrants of extremism - this is not the Tahrir, the utopia that we lived in for 18 days and after,” she said, referring to the turbulent beginnings of Egypt’s popular uprising.