This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 01/06/2011
A wide array of political groups and young people movements called for the second "Day of Rage" last week -- the first being the first Friday during the 18-day uprising which led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A small, but vocal, minority were calling for a new presidential council to replace the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) until elections could be held later in the year, as well as demanding a constitution be drawn up now, not after the elections. Far more wanted a trial for Mubarak and his clique, as well as a restraining of the military against those who decided to protest and an end of military trials. On May 27, all of these demands, and many others were present in Tahrir.
The day went without violence, and most left the square in the early evening, satisfied they had made their point, and that they had renewed their commitment to the revolution. But the day raised key strategic concerns for the future of the revolutionary forces, and their success for a changing Egypt. The first relates to perceptions of the revolutionary forces by the wider public -- and the second is the possibility of deepening splits among those forces.
There is a grave perception problem within wider Egyptian society of the revolutionary forces. One of the revolution's most significant achievements was its ability to unite so many disparate sectors of Egyptian society in a common cause; that unity is one of the counter-revolution's most cherished targets. Counter-revolutionary forces, as well as those who were ambivalent toward the revolution, are already trying to perpetuate the impression that the revolutionaries and the wider population are miles apart. They do so by portraying minorities within the revolutionary camp as being the majority -- or simply misrepresenting them altogether. For instance, many within the ultra-conservative Salafi movement portrayed the protestors last Friday as having been irreligious and morally corrupt (potentially damning in a conservative country like Egypt). The imam for Friday congregational prayer disputed that misrepresentation on May 27, as did the thousands in Tahrir Square who followed him in prayer; but the potential for damaging the revolutionaries' reputation was real.
Other portrayals are misleading on the basis of focusing on minorities within the revolutionary camp. Many within the media portrayed large portions of the revolutionaries at large as wanting to install a president council to run the country instead of SCAF, as well as to install a constitution prior to elections -- two demands that would probably be opposed by the majority of Egyptians, who would rightfully view them as undemocratic. On May 27, only a minority in Tahrir Square pushed for either of those demands -- but that minority was presented unrepresentatively, which then opened up the revolutionaries to accusations of being yet more detached from public opinion.
Perhaps the most dangerous perception issue is not about the demands of the revolutionaries, but the priority in which they are perceived to rank them. The military trials for civilians, the lack of speed in bringing regime stalwarts to trial, and the treatment of protestors by the military when they are imprisoned are incredibly unpopular across the revolutionary camp. But by and large, they understand that the military is a vital institution for the overall steadiness of Egypt, and that the army enjoys great popularity with Egyptians at large. As such, they have been trying to differentiate between SCAF and the military -- reserving their support for the latter, and their harshest criticism for the former. Nevertheless, a minority portion of the revolutionaries, active particularly in the media, has focused increasingly heavily on its discontent with SCAF -- to the point where the opposition to SCAF for this portion is perhaps highest on their priority list.
While average Egyptians might view complaints about the SCAF sympathetically, these are still not foremost on their minds. The majority of Egyptians are primarily concerned with economic recovery (more than 40 percent live around the poverty line, and their lives are getting harder), and security (the police may have partially returned to the streets, but they are certainly not doing their jobs). Neither issue is perceived as being at the top of protesters' list of demands, even if they might be on the list. Similarly, most in Egypt support the idea of a minimum wage, but it's not at the top of the list for the protestors.
It is also not clear that wider Egyptian society (including within the military itself) distinguishes SCAF so clearly from the army -- and the army enjoys a significantly high degree of popular support, inspite of its many shortcomings (which seem to increase weekly). It may be that within the revolutionary camp, feelings vis-à-vis the military may also be complex, especially as the military's mistakes increase; but increasingly, the media is portraying the protestors as taking a direct, confrontational posture -- a posture that is starker than public opinion would, at least at present, advocate.
These are all PR problems par excellence: ones that could be exploited in the elections to portray those political forces who support the protests as being, at best, aloof from average Egyptians, and, at worst, acting contrary to their best interests.
There is a major political force that rejected May 27, and its organized opposition to it could lead to an even more significant problem for the revolution: disunity. The Muslim Brotherhood practically attempted to portray May 27 as almost counter-revolutionary, and re-affirmed their support for the military and SCAF, even while issuing demands that are similar to the majority of the revolutionary forces. Many liberals in Tahrir Square were pleased that the Brotherhood was officially absent (although many of the Brotherhood youth were there). However, their absence does not come without a price. The blame for this separation certainly falls on the Brotherhood's leadership -- progressively, it has taken political positions that have been arrived at independently, rather than in concert with other revolutionary forces. For example, it actively boycotted the May 27 protest, and in its aftermath, officially withdrew its youth movement representation from the wider Revolutionary Youth Coalition (the MB youth movement had disobeyed direct instructions in participating). But the rest of the revolutionary forces cannot forsake the Brotherhood if they want the revolution to succeed. A forsaken Muslim Brotherhood by the rest of the revolutionary forces is one that is, by default, closer to the ultra-conservative, Salafi trend, which is hardly positive for the success of the revolution. In any event, the Brotherhood at present commands more support than any, and possibly all, of the other anti-Mubarak political forces.
May 27 was not a failure -- but it was not a success either. If the next protest is to be truly successful, it will need to emphasize the unity of the revolution -- the unity of the revolutionaries with the grassroots, and the unity of the liberals with the Muslim Brotherhood, against the forces of the counter-revolution. Otherwise, while such a protest might not be a failure, it certainly will be laying down the basis for failure in the months to come. Those gaps have to be closed. The future of Egypt -- and thus the future of many in the region who will look to Egypt as a model -- depends on it.
Dr H.A. Hellyer (www.hahellyer.com) is a Fellow of the University of Warwick (UK) and the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (USA). Previously a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, he is writing a book on the Arab uprisings.