Neighbors / From Old Dictatorship to New

Members of the movement that brought the masses to Tahrir Square are noticeably absent from a convention now underway on Egypt's political future.

"We're going from a dictatorship of the National Party [the ruling party under Mubarak], which didn't prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from entering the political sphere, to a dictatorship of the revolution, bent on denying Egyptian citizens their rights under the pretext that they're members of the National Party. They forget that a majority of Egyptians were members of that party, willingly or otherwise."

By "they," Abu Douaa, an anonymous blogger on the Al-Masry Al-Youm site, means participants at the National Consensus Conference - a conference of representatives of various movements and groups, intellectuals and politicians, who, since late May, have been conducting a dialogue with Egypt's Higher Military Council about the country's political future.

Protesters in Tahrir Square - Reuters - 05/11

The conference has various committees, each devoted to a specific subject. Abu Douaa's was infuriated, of all things, by the decision taken by the Election Committee to prohibit politicians, leaders, and key figures in the dismantled National Party from playing an active role in politics for five years. The sweeping resolution also prevents the leaders of other "straw parties" created by the government from participating in political life and calls on ousting from parliament any members whose election was deemed fraudulent by the courts.

Dr. Hashem Rabia, chairman of the Election Committee, reported that a list of 2,970 activists who will be barred from politics has already been compiled and that it will be distributed among protest movements and registered parties to make sure that these individuals are prevented from running in the election and to take action against them if they do.

"It is easier for us to decide what should not be done than what should be done," said an activist from the April 6 Youth Movement, which was behind the mass demonstrations held in Tahrir Square in January. Its members have declined to participate in the conference, as has the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Have we already agreed on the nature of the constitution? Will the country continue to be defined as a state whose legislation draws its authority from Islamic law? Is our goal a settling of accounts, or the establishment of a new state?" he wonders, and adds: "In the meantime we are placing the authority to decide Egypt's future in the hands of the army, which is liable to steal the revolution from us."

These views - voiced by the activist, a 42-year-old software engineer, who also referred to the internal dispute raging in the April 6 Movement over participation in the conference - are shared by many. Last week, Dr. El-Sayyid el-Badawi, chairman of the New Wafd Party which served as a symbolic, ineffectual opposition during Mubarak's rule, warned that "the revolution has yet to achieve its goals, beyond deposing the former president and placing his ministers, along with others responsible for Egypt's plight, on trial. We should leave the desire to take revenge on the former regime to the courts." El-Badawi called on the army to continue to manage Egypt's affairs for at least another two years, so that deserving presidential candidates might gain an opportunity to present themselves to the public and earn its trust. The presidential election has been set for December - barring a postponement - but no leading candidates have yet emerged.

El-Badawi acknowledges that the army refuses to comply with his call, since the military leadership wants to relieve itself as soon as possible of the burden of directly governing the country. He is particularly worried by the "revolutionary spirit" still rampant on the Egyptian streets, which allows criminal offenders and thugs to act with impunity.

In a horrifying incident last week, Marianna Abdou, a reporter with the Coptic television station CTV, was violently attacked by a group of thugs while interviewing demonstrators at Tahrir Square. The attackers shouted at her "Israeli, Israeli," tore her clothes, and, according to eyewitnesses, even tried to rape her. A courageous policeman eventually braved the crowd and fired his gun in the air to disperse them.

This act, publicly acknowledged by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, was exceptional, in view of the general reluctance of Egyptian police to confront demonstrators or lawbreakers. Witnesses reported that the policeman's colleagues tried to disperse the attackers but were forced to flee themselves when the thugs turned on them.

At a distance of a few blocks from Tahrir Square, in the huge convention hall at the historic Shepheard Hotel where author and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz used to meet his friends and admirers, another political dispute was playing out. The representatives of four newly established political parties, none of which has yet obtained a legal license, held a European/American-style public debate, attended by a large audience. Each representative was required to present, in five minutes, his party's platform, then to address arguments by his rivals and questions from the audience. The participants were well-known and influential personalities, belonging mostly to Cairo's elites, such as businessman Naguib Sawiris, intellectual Osama Al-Ghazali Harb and Dr. Mustafa al-Najjar, who coordinated Mohamed ElBaradei's election campaign.

All agreed, of course, that Egypt's prosperity, democracy, and the rooting out of corruption must take precedence. But when pressed for details, they were far from reaching a consensus. Some were apprehensive about the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself has founded two political parties, and some were in favor of postponing the presidential election and even the parliamentary election. Profound differences also emerged regarding the nature of the Egyptian state itself, particularly in view of the Coptic population's fear of a major victory by the Muslim Brotherhood. Three months ahead of the parliamentary election, Egypt is still stuck in Tahrir Square.