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Firas Al-Atraqchi Headshot

Egypt Now Needs Activism 2.0

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The decision by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the first democratically elected parliament and validate a former regime minister's run for the top job -- just days ahead of the second round of presidential elections -- should come as no surprise.

For weeks, Egyptians had complained that the People's Assembly was ineffective in dealing with the country's problems. Cabinet ministers addressing Parliament would routinely engage in verbal tussles with MPs but the elected body could neither pressure the government nor the ruling military council. No tears will really be shed now that it has been dissolved.

However, the Court's decision had less to do with Parliament's performance and more to do with the ruling military's stacking of the cards in its favor.

A series of developments since January highlight the ruling military's efforts to sideline Islamist power -- Islamists dominated in Parliament -- while simultaneously strengthening the presidential candidacy of former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a retired Air Force general and minister of civil aviation.

In March, the Electoral Commission used the Political Exclusion Law, passed by Parliament, to bar Shafiq from running for president on account he was a member of the former regime.

But Shafiq's candidacy was reinstated by the Commission less than a week later. Further efforts to use the Exclusion Law were shot down by a higher court which ruled it unconstitutional.

Now, Thursday's Supreme Constitutional Court decision not only removes any threat an Islamist-dominated Parliament could have posed but also annuls any laws it passed in the interim.

This means, specifically, that the Exclusion Law is illegal. Shafiq's bid for the presidency is now stronger than ever and constitutional. He faces off with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in the runoff on June 16/17.

The Court's decision is only the latest blow to the aspirations of the activists and revolutionaries to reform and democratize the country.

It appears now that there has been an organized effort to roll back history to a political climate that existed before Jan. 25, 2011.

Many Egyptians felt an eerie deja-vu of the 'same old, same old' politics when state media announced the results of the May 23/24 presidential election.

Although the 13 candidates ran the gamut -- from the ultra-conservative to the secularist to the seasoned diplomat -- it was the decades-old collision between Islamist forces (Morsi) and the military plutocracy (Shafiq) that came to the fore.

Depressed, disillusioned and detracted from the political debates, many Egyptians are disappointed that they are left with a choice to pick between "the lesser of two evils."

Others are calling for a boycott at the ballot while some have put on a spirited bravado and declared that the movement which unseated President Hosni Mubarak is now moving into its second phase, Revolution 2.0.

But the so-called revolution is at an impasse because of lack of unity, strategic planning and vision. The tens of thousands of Egyptians who braved tear gas, live ammunition and brutal beatings have been effectively left in the lurch while their political leaders scurried to gain favor with the ruling military or squabble among themselves.

They fell prey to a strategy that the former regime has long used to silence alternative narratives to its messages, speeches and press releases.

By cracking down on activists, jailing bloggers and harassing journalists who shed light on regime discrepancies, Mubarak's cohorts hoped to prevent political maturity in Egypt.

The formula they applied time and again was simple: government acts, activists react, government cracks down (who can forget the throngs of Ministry of Interior anti-riot police surrounding a handful of demonstrators); the narrative shifts.

Using this approach, the former regime boxed in all dissent (in more ways than one) and dominated even opposition discourse.

To a large extent, this approach helped undermine the January 2011 populist uprising and enabled the military to be firmly in control.

Rather than see the next phase in the country's political evolution emerge from Tahrir and the youth movement, it was the military that set the date for the March 2011 referendum, the date for the parliamentary elections, the date for presidential elections, when and who should redraft the constitution and when to hand over power to a civilian authority.

Given that the military council has dominated even the way the "revolution" played itself out, the real hope for change lies in Activism 2.0.

Egyptian activists and pro-reformists must abandon the old structure of reactive politics and emerge with pre-emptive platforms. They can't wait until the new constitution has been written; instead they must campaign to ensure that it strengthens civilian administration, puts checks and balances in place that limit presidential and military powers.

Many now acknowledge that they missed a number of opportunities to determine the narrative, instead abdicating their responsibilities and obligations as political leaders to the military.

Many now believe that former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei had been right to withdraw from the presidential race in January because of what he described as a process dominated by the ruling military council. He said elections could not be held in such an environment and particularly without a redrafted new constitution.

In March 2012, ElBaradei announced he was forming a political party which focuses on ensuring that the constitution become the law of the land.

Following their defeat in the May election, three presidential candidates announced the formation of a "revolution leadership council," pooling their resources and supporters together. But the call to form a presidential council had been made by activists, including ElBaradei, several months earlier and is now far too late.

Instead, Egypt's opposition political leaders engaged in reactive politics rather than setting an unified agenda and establishing a narrative before an event occurs.

Had some of the 13 candidates joined forces, formed a coalition, sheer power in numbers could have pressured the military and the picture today may have been different.

Speaking to a number of activists that have stood their ground since the beginning, one comes away with a sense that they have started to learn the rules of the game. They are beginning to understand how duplicitous politics can be and that they can no longer afford to be reactive, but must be purposeful.

Some, who support the ballot boycott, have come to realize that democracy is not simply about the right to vote, but about building institutions.

However, the activists cannot operate in a vacuum. Political leaders such as ElBaradei have already started to establish a new narrative, but many are hoping former socialist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third, will lend his new-found political capital and ally with reformists.

In the meantime, Egypt has come full circle -- back to square one with the ruling military/regime plutocracy challenged only by the Islamists.