Islamists, secularists rush to exploit the angry crowd.
When Egyptian Judge Ahmed Refaat gave a life sentence on Saturday to former dictator Hosni Mubarak for being an accessory in the deaths of more than 800 protestors during the "Egyptian Spring," the initial reaction among many in the crowded courtroom was joyful. Many expected Mubarak to be found innocent, or receive a more lenient sentence. But outrage exploded across Egypt when Refaat acquitted the six security chiefs of the same crimes as their boss and dismissed corruption charges against Mubarak and his two sons. Chaos in the courtroom spilled outside where police battled enraged demonstrators with stun grenades and truncheons. The verdict has possibly redefined the upcoming Egyptian presidential election -- people may fear a return of Mubarak-style rule more than they fear the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, Mubarak regime holdover and Brotherhood opponent Ahmed Shafiq is demonstrating that he may be able to leverage events in his favor, as the presidential race becomes muddier than ever.
The protests only grew in size when the demonstrators moved on to iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo where the largest and most determined protests against Mubarak's 30-year-reign helped topple the dictator. Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied and chanted "Illegal! Illegal!" and "Either we get justice for our martyrs or we die like them!"
It is unknown how the verdict will affect the presidential runoff election later this month that pits former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq against the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi. Both candidates were out on the hustings on Sunday trying to exploit the crisis for their own political gain. Both candidates have good cases to make to different constituencies so the chances of one of them receiving a decisive advantage as a result of the turmoil are lessened considerably.
Mubarak's conviction -- along with the conviction on the same charges of his interior minister Habib al-Adli -- could very well be overturned on appeal according to several experts on Egyptian law. "It's a completely politicized verdict that is meant to calm the masses," said Maha Youssef, a legal expert from the Nadim Center in Cairo. He added, "The essence of a ruling by a criminal court judge is not in the papers of the case but in his own personal conviction as someone who lives among the people and know what goes on in his society."
A Wall Street Journal editorial offered similar thoughts:
From its start last summer, the prosecution of Egypt's deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak was a hasty, politicized circus. So it's no surprise that the trial's conclusion on Saturday has brought no closure or sense of justice.
The editorial also pointed out "[t]he 'accessory' charge is weak and could be overthrown easily on appeal." Mr. Mubarak's lawyers have already indicated they will seek a retrial. The verdict will also be appealed by the prosecutor because he feels the judge went too easy on the defendants.
But it is not so much the Mubarak verdict that has enraged democracy activists and others. It is the acquittal of the six security chiefs, as well as the dropping of charges against Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, that have placed the former dictator's verdict in the context of a society where nothing much has changed despite Mubarak's ouster. The protestors in Tahrir Square were calling for an end to military rule -- just as they have for more than 15 months. The suspicion among the young activists who manned the barricades during the worst of the attempted suppression of the revolt is that the military will find a way to acquit the dictator on appeal and rig the election so that Shafiq emerges victorious. A huge demonstration is planned for Tuesday, and the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to participate, flexing its political muscle in the street where its candidate Mr. Morsi seeks to capture the spirit and enthusiasm that was evident on Saturday and Sunday in protests across the country.
To that end, Morsi is seeking a political accommodation with two of his closest challengers in last month's preliminary election round. Morsi will meet with fourth-place finisher Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former reformist Brotherhood leader, and the socialist candidate who finished third, Hamdeen Sabahi, and attempt to forge a united front in the streets in response to the verdicts. Morsi is also hoping that joining with the two former candidates will energize his campaign, putting him over the top in what is seen as a very tight race.
"Today we are all in the squares. After this presser I will go to Tahrir directly to keep the revolution going until it realizes its aims," he said. By trying to marry the anger and fear in the street with his campaign, Morsi has a hold of a potent combination that could very well bring him victory. The major argument against Shafiq is that he will bring back the autocracy of the Mubarak era by simply being a puppet of the military. This may not be far from the truth, although the former prime minister claims independence from all factions.
But even though the former prime minister Shafiq is closely identified with Mubarak and the military council ruling Egypt, the vast silent majority of Egyptians are tired of the protests and unrest. Seeing Tahrir Square fill up again may be playing directly into Shafiq's hands. His major argument has been that only he is capable of restoring social peace, getting the economy moving again, while at the same time, staying true to the principles of the revolution.
Not surprisingly, this plays very well with many ordinary Egyptians. Speaking of the verdict, the owner of a small leather factory, Oudo Hassan, said that Egyptians should respect the rule of law. “We should move on, and look after our own interests,” he said. Whether this translates into support for Mr. Shafiq remains to be seen. But to help the process along, Shafiq held a news conference on Sunday where he raised the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood monopolizing power and bringing Egypt back "to the dark ages":
"I represent the civil state," Shafiq told a news conference. "The Brotherhood represents darkness and secrecy. No one knows who they are or what they are doing. I represent dialogue and tolerance."
"They want to monopolize power," he said. "They don't want to take us 30 years back, but all the way back to the dark ages."
Shafiq also accused Morsi and the Brotherhood of wanting to move the capital of Egypt to East Jerusalem, apparently a reference to the Islamists' long standing goal of restoring the caliphate. Morsi, of course, has said no such thing but it is an indication of how increasingly bitter the campaign is becoming.
In fact, prior to the Mubarak verdict, a backlash of sorts had been building against the Muslim Brotherhood's attempts to dominate politics in parliament and in the street. Shafiq's charge that the Brotherhood would "monopolize power" falls on fertile political ground as the Islamists have been overbearing in their exercise of their parliamentary mandate. And raising the prospect of sharia law being implemented could also bear fruit at the polls. It is a reminder -- if any is really needed -- of the ultimate goal of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies.
So both candidates carry a lot of baggage into the runoff election with the Mubarak verdicts stirring the political pot in ways that won't be known until after the election. Can people put aside their distrust of Ahmed Shafiq? Or will they vote for him because they fear the Brotherhood's political/religious agenda? And can Mohamed Morsi lay those fears to rest while tying Shafiq to the Mubarak verdicts and the ancien regime?
Both candidates have their work cut out for them between now and the election.
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