SummaryA demonstration planned for July 8 in the Egyptian capital could be the largest such gathering in Egypt since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which did not drive the protests that led to Mubarak’s ouster, announced July 6 that it would join the July 8 rally.
The move might appear to be an expression of solidarity with Egypt’s secular pro-democracy activists, but it is the Islamist movement’s attempt to retain legitimacy in the eyes of its younger members.
A rally that many organisers have dubbed “Revolution First Friday” or “Persistence Friday” is scheduled to take place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on July 8. It could become the largest demonstration in Egypt since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood unexpectedly announced July 6 that it would attend, joining the secular civil society and political forces that have already begun setting up tents in the square.
This apparent display of unity among all those who have pledged to go to Tahrir on July 8 is superficial, as it does not address the fundamental divide among those vying for power in post-Mubarak Egypt. The main demands of the planned protest revolve around a general call for social justice following the 18 days of demonstrations last winter. Specific demands include a purge of the Interior Ministry and the pressuring of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to order trials for members of the security forces accused of employing violence against demonstrators as well as corrupt former National Democratic Party officials. In other words, this demonstration is based on things almost everyone in Egypt — whether secular or Islamist, politically active or not — can agree upon. Recent riots in Cairo and Suez, for example, were triggered in large part by lingering resentment against the security forces and the fact that so far only one police officer has been convicted for acts committed during the protests. Rather than an act of solidarity with those who initially called for another return to Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in the July 8 rally is an attempt to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of its younger members, who share common ground with the activists.
The Debate: Constitution First or Election First?
Plans for another mass demonstration in Cairo on July 8 were first made public in early June. The main umbrella group of Egypt’s various pro-democracy youth movements — the January 25 Revolutionary Youth Coalition — announced that the day would be known as “Constitution First Friday.” The rally name refers to the group’s position in the debate that has dominated Egypt’s political scene for the past few months — whether parliamentary elections or a rewriting of the constitution should occur first. Although the planned rally is no longer being advertised as Constitution First Friday, this debate has not been resolved.
The Muslim Brotherhood, many other Islamists and even a sizable number of Egyptians who do not identify with Islamist groups favour holding elections first, then using their expected gains to wield greater influence over the writing of the new constitution. Meanwhile, almost all of these types of activists, as well as opposition parties that have not yet sought to ally with the Brotherhood in the campaign, want a committee chosen by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to draft the constitution and then hold elections, giving them more time to prepare. As it stands, the vote is scheduled for September, before the writing of the new constitution. Thus far, the Muslim Brotherhood has stayed away from the persistent demonstrations in Tahrir Square, as it does not want to upset the trajectory toward elections.
After the Egyptian rising, the military found itself in an unspoken alignment of sorts with the Muslim Brotherhood — something that would have been unheard of only six months ago. This intersection of interests does not mean the military is eager to give the Islamists political power. However, ruling military council is committed to giving up the day-to-day responsibilities of governance and likely understands the inevitability of the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political party, along with other Islamist groups and their parties, gaining a sizable share of seats in parliament and thus having a significant say in any future coalition government. (That said, the military could also be assuming that even if the Brotherhood fares well in the September elections, its inexperience in governance, combined with the current difficult circumstances in Egypt, would lead the it to do a poor job once in office. This outcome would put Egypt’s secular political forces in a better position in the long run.)
Factors Changing the Political Landscape
The military can always simply cancel elections or postpone them indefinitely. However, it would risk creating an unknown level of backlash from a segment of society that by and large never took to the streets during the uprising. The introduction of true multiparty politics in Egypt is a new reality that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has accepted, and the council is managing the environment in an attempt to maintain its own power. So far, it has remained committed to moving the country toward elections. In the last few weeks, however, two ongoing processes have changed Egypt’s political landscape. One has to do with rising frustrations among many Egyptians who feel that their revolution has been hijacked (or that there never was a true revolution). Another impacting force has to do with dissent within the Muslim Brotherhood. Combined, these processes create the possibility that the July 8 demonstration will draw the largest crowds seen in Tahrir Square since February.
Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood has been very deliberate and cautious, and its behaviour in the initial days of the rising against Mubarak was no different. Its youth wing, however, took a much more active role in the Tahrir demonstrations. Since the military council took over, the Brotherhood has enjoyed more political space than it has had before, and this freedom has led many members to challenge the authority of the group’s leadership. In June, the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau expelled six members for disobeying its orders against joining or forming alternate political parties to the Brotherhood-sanctioned Freedom and Justice Party. Those expelled already held a large amount of influence within the Muslim Brotherhood, especially with the younger members, and the publicity surrounding their expulsions has the Brotherhood’s leadership concerned that it could feel the effects in the polls this September.
This situation is one reason behind the Brotherhood’s announcement that it would join the Tahrir rally: It feared its abstention would leave it vulnerable to accusations that it is working with the military and against the revolution. Nonetheless, if the protest had been about Egypt’s new constitution being written before the election, the Brotherhood would not have joined. The Brotherhood is likely in communication with the military council, assuring the council that its decision to participate in the July 8 rally is not a break from their unspoken alignment.
As for the disillusionment among Egyptians who believed Mubarak’s ouster would bring real change, the military council is taking the issue seriously. In the face of popular pressure, the council has already begun to offer concessions to those who believe it is acting just as the Mubarak government would have acted. On July 6, Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawi said he would reveal the largest shake-up in the history of the ministry July 17, a change he said would be tantamount to a “purge.” One day later, the government announced that it would be putting on trial the main leaders of the “Battle of the Camels” that took place in Tahrir Square on Feb. 2. The Interior Ministry also said July 7 that it would not deploy officers to the square on July 8 but would station them along the periphery and call upon them if needed. These actions appear to indicate that the council will allow the demonstration to take place without interference — unless violence breaks out.
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