Egypt: Resistance and the Vote

After clashes between protesters and military police in Suez, customs employees in Suez refused to allow a seven-ton shipment of U.S.-made tear gas canisters to enter the port. (Image by Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Suez, Egypt, 2011)

Egypt: Resistance and the Vote

The burnt out shell of Al Arbaeen police station along the main thoroughfare of Suez has been masked behind dozens of campaign posters strung out along its blackened facade. The police station--torched in the opening days of the Egyptian revolution--stands as a testament to the hotbed of militancy and resistance that has come to symbolize this seaport city. It was here that the first protester was killed on January 25, the first day of the uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. If Tahrir Square was the heart of Egypt's revolution, then Suez was its clenched fist.

"Resistance is a part of our culture," says Medhat Eissa, a local activist, TV anchor and member of the Suez Revolution Youth Coalition.

Ten months after the fall of Mubarak, the residents of Suez are now preparing to head to the polls on December 14, to cast their votes in the second round of Egypt's parliamentary elections. In a staggered election process, Egypt's 27 governorates are voting for members of the People's Assembly (lower house) in three phases over a period of six weeks. Round one--which began on November 28 and included the cities of Cairo and Alexandria--saw Islamist parties capture a majority of the vote.

The Democratic Alliance, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won approximately 40 percent of the vote while the Islamist Bloc, headed by the ultraconservative Salafi party, Al Nour, won a surprising 25 percent. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of secular liberal parties, came in a distant third with 12 percent.

If the electoral trends continue over the next two phases, Egypt's post-revolutionary parliament will be dominated by Islamist parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood as kingmaker, holding the largest number of seats.

Serious questions remain, however, about the role of the incoming parliament, which is being elected and will convene while the country is under the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of military generals headed by Mubarak's longtime defense minister, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

"This parliament is here to rubberstamp, not to govern," Eissa says, acknowledging serious limitations of the assembly's authority. Despite these misgivings, Eissa is himself running for one of Suez's six parliamentary seats with the Adl (Justice) Party, a centrist group formed after the revolution. His mixed views help paint a picture of Egypt's convoluted post-revolutionary political landscape.

The primary mandate of the incoming parliament is to appoint a special 100-member body tasked with drawing up Egypt's first post-Mubarak constitution. However, the SCAF has delivered contradictory messages about the process, raising serious questions about their intentions to control the outcome and protect their interests.

In the wake of the first round election results, Major General Mokhtar el-Mulla--a leading member of SCAF--held a rare press conference with a group of foreign media outlets. He told journalists that the incoming parliament "is not representing all the Egyptian people" and that those appointed to write the new constitution must also be approved by the interim cabinet and a newly-created advisory council, both of which fall under control of SCAF. He also insisted that the details of the army budget must remain shielded from democratic oversight.

Days later, the SCAF backtracked, saying only the parliament would have the authority to appoint the constituent assembly. In an appearance on national television, SCAF member Major General Mamdouh Shahin denied the advisory council would play a role in selecting the 100-member body and said they would only serve to advise SCAF on certain issues during the transitional period.

It is through this fog of political uncertainty and confusion that voters in Suez and in eight other governorates across Egypt are heading to the polls for the second round of parliamentary elections.

"We are not in a battle with SCAF," says Abbas Abdel Aziz, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Suez who is running for a seat in parliament with their Freedom and Justice Party. "We are not two separate pieces, SCAF and parliament; we have to put our hands together."

Aziz insists that the revolution which began on the streets has now moved to the ballot box. He trusts the SCAF will return to their barracks after a new parliament, president and constitution are all in place, as they have pledged to do, and denies that the military council will be able to manipulate the transitional process to protect the military's economic interests and privileges from civilian oversight.

However, many of the youth who have led Egypt's revolution accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of political opportunism and insist that a battle with SCAF is already underway, one that reached its apex during a six-day uprising that began in Tahrir Square on November 19th when clashes between protesters and security forces quickly escalated into the most violent street battles since the fall of Mubarak. The protests also spread to several other cities including Alexandria and Suez, all with one clear demand: "Down with military rule."

Security forces fired live ammunition, rubber bullets, birdshot and an astonishing amount of tear gas on protesters. At least 45 people were killed and more than 3,000 wounded. A massive demonstration in Tahrir on November 22 compelled Tantawi to directly address the Egyptian people on television for the first time since assuming the position of de facto ruler of the country.

The Muslim Brotherhood was noticeably absent from the demonstrations and even went so far as to forbid its members from taking part, fearing the parliamentary poll would be delayed if clashes continued. "This is not the way of the Muslim Brotherhood," Aziz says. "Why should we fight and break things? For what?"

Days after the clashes ended, a group of customs employees in Suez refused to allow a seven-ton shipment of U.S.-made tear gas canisters to enter the port. The workers were protesting the excessive use of tear gas by security forces that had led to hundreds of protesters collapsing and several dying of asphyxiation, Eissa says. He obtained the original cargo manifest from a "trusted source" at the port backing up his claim of seven tons of "ammunition smoke"--which includes chemical irritants and riot control agents such as tear gas--shipped from the Jamestown, Pennsylvania-based company Combined Systems and bound for the Egyptian Interior Ministry.

"They keep talking about the economy and the wheels of production and they go buy tons of tear gas to wound and kill people? No, we in Suez won't stand for this," Eissa says. Nevertheless, the shipment was eventually allowed in and the dissident port workers were subjected to questioning.

Amid all of this, Egypt's electoral process proceeds. In Suez, and across the country, the twin currents of resistance through direct action and political reform through the ballot box both make claims to being the real path to change.

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