Monday, May 23, 2011

The May 27th Gamble

May 27th could prove the most important day for the Egyptian revolution since Mubarak's resignation. This Friday, a coalition of revolutionaries have called for a million-man protest. They hope to spark, in their own words, a second Egyptian revolution.

This confrontational strategy is fraught with risks. Of course, the protests will anger the military council ruling Egypt, which cares about stability above all else. But perhaps more worrisome, the protests could further fracture Egyptian society.

We all marveled at the stunning unity of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square during the revolution. Young and old, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, urban and rural all chanted together, "The people want the fall of the regime." But as many analysts warned, once those chants became reality, the unity would begin to disintegrate. So it has.

Since Mubarak's resignation, several fractures have become visible. The call for massive protests on May 27th could exacerbate all of them.

First, sectarian tensions between Christian and Muslims have bubbled over on several occasions. As Michael Hanna points out, these tensions "have deep roots in recent Egyptian history [and] may be the most urgent test of how much Egypt has actually changed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak." Violence has prompted some Christians to voice nostalgia for the security of the Mubarak era, and in a few extreme cases, they have even called for foreign intervention. For the first time, we've seen Christians protest separately from those demonstrating in Tahrir Square.

These tensions are even visible in the Egyptian-American community. A recent conference I attended devolved into a shouting match between Christians and Muslims before one well-respected community leader defused the situation with a timely joke.

While the May 27th protest leaders have called on all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, to descend upon Tahrir Square, they oddly have not included anything concerning religious freedom and tolerance in their list of demands (in Arabic here). For many Christians (and Egypt's other religious minorities), silence on the issue implies acquiescence to the unacceptable status quo.

Second, the debate over the role of Islam in politics has also caused divisions within Egyptian society. Most visibly, Salafists have been behind much of the sectarian troubles in recent months. The Muslim Brotherhood, though it has condemned the violence, has not quelled fears about its ultimate intentions. Mixed messages abound. For example, even though the Brotherhood's new political party includes Christian leadership, it also plans to work closely with Salafi political parties in the upcoming elections.

The May 27th protests will have to recruit their million men and women without the help of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has refused to participate. As one of the best organized organizations in Egypt, the Brotherhood sees an interest in holding elections as soon as possible and therefore does not want any major disturbances to delay the electoral schedule.

Yet the Brotherhood also initially refused to officially participate in the January 25th revolution. If the protests gather momentum, they may change their mind about May 27th as well. Moreover, it's not clear they will be able to maintain their own unity. Just as they did in the January 25th revolutions, youth members of the movement may join the protests without official permission, further contributing to a generational divide within the organization. Finally, the May 27th protests may further split the interests of the estranged Brotherhood member who has declared his candidacy for president against the wishes of the leadership.

Third, different revolutionary priorities have also led to disagreement. On May 15th, a largely secular crowd protested in front of the Israeli embassy in commemoration of what they call the Nakba, or the "catastrophe" of the founding of Israel and the coerced migration of Palestinians. For many Egyptians, the protests and resulting crackdown was an unnecessary distraction from Egypt's tremendous internal problems. As the blogger Zeinobia put it, May 15th "was truly Nakba for all Egypt, no one won as everybody lost." That is not to say Palestine isn't important to Egyptians or to the Egyptian revolution, as this post by Hossam el-Hamalawy clearly shows. But rather, many simply feel now is not the right time to stir up yet another hornet's nest.

Instead, people like Wael Ghonim have urged the revolutionaries to focus on the economic conditions of the country. Underlying this argument is a valid concern that the revolution has lost touch with the needs and aspirations of the average Egyptian who cares more about bread than abstract political rights.

Tellingly, the May 27th organizers have placed the economy at the top of their agenda. However, their demands take a clear ideological turn to the left. They call for the establishment of a minimum and maximum wage, "the distribution of wealth to rescue the country from economic crisis," price controls, progressive tax schedules, and the prosecution of corrupt businessmen to recover ill-gained earnings.

Putting aside the question of what would objectively best serve Egypt's economy, the socialist slant of these demands may alienate certain segments of the Egyptian society who would otherwise participate on May 27th. For example, there is no mention of the need to promote economic growth through investment, trade and tourism or how protests would serve those ends. In addition, the question of foreign assistance will prove an obstacle to unity. As business magnate and newly-minted politician Naguib Sawiris in favor of such assistance tweeted recently, "busy writing the economic program of our party, not sure left wingers will like it!" But the thought of foreign assistance disgusts many Egyptians, such as Gigi Ibrahim who likened it to "shackles."

All of these issues - sectarianism, Islamism and revolutionary priorities - combine to form significant obstacles for the May 27th protests by draining possible sources of support. Unfortunate in-fighting between the revolutionaries, sparked by a mixture of jealousy and policy disagreement, has also hampered unity. But the greatest hurdle may simply be public fatigue. For months, Egyptians have lived on the edge. They were willing to balance on that edge to overthrow Mubarak. But with so many fault lines running through Egyptian society, it is unclear they are willing to continue to do so on May 27th. Nor is it clear that the demands of the May 27th protests can best be achieved on the street.

I am sure the May 27th organizers have carefully considered these questions, weighed the pros and cons, and decided to take a massive risk. They may succeed in sparking a second revolution that will bring true change to Egypt. Or they may drastically fail and even irrevocably tarnish the cadre of revolutionaries who led the way on January 25th. We will know Friday whether their gamble will pay off.

UPDATE: A blogger I cite above, Zeinobia, has translated the list of demands for May 27th and added her own commentary here.

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