Written by Ryan Mauro
At least 11 Egyptians died over the weekend in violence ahead of the scheduled November 28 election. The country is shaking as protesters demand that the ruling military council set a date to hand over power to a civilian government shortly after the voting is finished in March. At the same time, the contests between the political parties is heating up as secularists are accused of violating Islam and the Salafists turn on the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the instability, the council says that elections will still be held.
Demonstrators of a mostly Islamist orientation began protesting on Friday against the ruling military council’s moves to hold onto power. They are demanding that the council announce a firm date for when power will be transferred to an elected interim government. The council doesn’t want an official handover until the presidential elections take place, which it has loosely scheduled for late 2012 or early 2013. The Egyptian political parties and the presidential candidates, both secularist and Islamist, are not so patient.
Clashes took place in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere. By Sunday, the crowd in Tahrir Square reached 5,000. The Egyptian military and police decided to put an end to it, forcibly dispersing the demonstrators with rubber bullets, batons and tear gas. At least a dozen protest tents, along with banners and blankets, were set ablaze. A doctor said that the security forces aimed for the heads of their targets instead of the legs. Eleven died and 192 were injured in Tahrir Square. The government says at least 1,114 were wounded across the country over the weekend.
The Interior Ministry confirms that 55 have been arrested and 85 police officers injured. The government claims that some protesters fired guns, wielded knives and threw firebombs. Hundreds of protests have returned to Tahrir Square since the crackdown and demonstrators and security personnel are throwing rocks at each other.
The protests are fueled by a concern that the Supreme Armed Forces Council will undermine democratic reforms so it can hold onto power. The council has made it clear it will not allow “another Khomeini” to rise, but it is also taking action against its secular opponents. The country went into an uproar recently when the council proposed that it be given veto power over any future constitution and that it pick 80 of the 100 members of the constitutional committee. The council backed down.
The Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, are still being persecuted. On November 17, about 400 marched in honor of the 27 people who lost their lives in sectarian crisis, most of whom were Christians. They were attacked, with rocks and broken glass falling on them from the upper part of a building while the police did nothing. Ten Christians were injured. The victims said the attackers were supporters of a Salafist candidate running in the parliamentary elections named Gamal Saber.
There are now multiple struggles underway as the first round of elections on November 28 draw near. The secularists and the Islamists both oppose the military council. The secularists and the Islamists oppose each other and within the Islamist camp, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists have locked horns.
The Islamists are building support by selling essential goods to the poor at a steep discount. This includes food, clothing and medicine. The Muslim Brotherhood even sponsored a game of soccer. The organizational advantages of the Islamists over the secularists are plain for all to see. It is not just the Muslim Brotherhood that has a well-oiled operation and campaign infrastructure. The Salafist Al-Nour party says it has 100,000 members and 150 offices around the country.
The Salafists were originally part of the Brotherhood-lead Democratic Alliance bloc. The Al-Nour, Al-Asalah, Al-Fadilah and Al-Islah Salafist parties decided to leave and form their own coalition. The two have since clashed, with the Brotherhood saying that the Salafists’ volcanic rhetoric is hurting the Islamist movement as a whole. It is unclear at this point if the Salafists and the Brotherhood will coordinate their campaigns so that they don’t split the Islamist vote in individual districts.
There is not much time left before the voting begins and the Islamists’ hopes are high. The Al-Nour party predicts that the Islamists will control over one-third of parliament. Middle East expert Dr. Barry Rubin revised his projection in the wake of the Islamist Ennahda Party’s success in the Tunisian elections (winning 41% of the vote). He now believes the Islamists will get nearly half of the seats in parliament, partly because of non-Islamists dividing the vote.
The first round of elections for the lower house of parliament will take place on November 28. Nine provinces will vote in each round and there will be a run-off election in districts where the victor does not win a majority of the vote. The second and third rounds for the lower house will take place on December 14 and January 3, respectively. The three rounds for the upper house will take place on January 29, February 14 and March 4.
The elected interim government will draft the next constitution and decide the role of Sharia. The stakes for Egypt and the region could not be much higher.