Egypt Elections: Tahrir Square Fallout Worries Liberal Party As Disputed Vote Nears

CAIRO -- Raied Salama sat in a small office, eyeing the clock on the wall of his political party's headquarters, a few blocks from restless Tahrir Square. It was a little after noon on Saturday, and in half an hour, Salama had to leave to catch a flight to the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor for a last-minute check on his party's candidates there.

A senior committee member with Egypt's Social Democratic Party (SDP), one of the country's few substantial liberal parties to have formed in the wake of the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the youthful Salama represents a midway point between a growing tension, both within his party and across much of the political landscape here.

After seven days of brutal urban strife -- and with the country's revolutionary fervor reignited against the governing military regime -- many are asking whether parliamentary elections, set to begin on Monday, would truly be a step toward democracy, or if they might only solidify the army's autocratic rule.

Many people are adamant that any parliamentary elections that take place while the military regime is still in place would be a sham. "People have died for clean elections," an activist told HuffPost Friday, "and if [the military regime] is involved, it will not be a clean election."

Amid the revolutionaries, particularly the impoverished youths who have borne the brunt of the recent fighting, the mood is largely one of apathy.

"I honestly don't think about it at all," one young fighter said, when asked about the upcoming elections.

For the politicians, this means a daily struggle between the mundane promises of electoral outreach and a growing sense among the public that the time for politics has not yet come, especially while the people's rage at the abuses of an indifferent and unaccountable regime has barely subsided.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has a massive following and is expected to fare very well in the vote, is the only major party not to join the protests or seriously discuss a full halt to campaigning. Consequently, the more secular, often liberal parties are being torn between mutually exclusive political processes.

"We are in a real dilemma," said Salama, who is 49 years old and a financial consultant by trade, as he fiddled with an iPad in his party office.

"If we are not in the elections and the Muslim Brotherhood is, then the parliament will be theirs, and it will be the end of the democratic process that we are going through. On the other hand, if we do this, we cannot satisfy the people in the street. This is the problem. How do we satisfy the people in the street, who do not want an election? But at the same time, you realize that if we do that, we leave the election for the Muslim Brotherhood to win."

The answer to this question has not been obvious, and the SDP itself has hardly sent unambiguous signals over the past several days about its intentions. For a brief period Friday morning, several news agencies carried reports that the SDP was boycotting the elections -- which would have been a radical step for such a major party.

Those reports were false, Salama and others said, but a statement attributed to the party that many outlets carried was valid -- "It was not very clear about our plans," Salama admitted -- and it was harsh: "After nine months it is clear to everyone that the military council is leading the country into a catastrophe and the blood flowing now in Tahrir Square is just the latest atrocity in a series of crimes and mistakes made by the council," the statement read. "We refuse to participate in this gamble of lives and the future of this nation and to partake in this show of elections, which will divert attention away from the legitimate demands of the revolutionaries."

Salama said he believed the party had made the right decision.

"My own view is we should run," he said. "My only criteria would be blood: If you're having the bloodshed in the streets, then I would say no."

But he admitted the decision had been contentious.

Pointing to the small chair he was sitting on, he said, "We call this the 'No chair,' because the last two times we had meetings in this office about whether to stay in the elections, the person sitting in this chair always said 'No.'"

Down the hall, Hala Mustafa, a hardworking party spokesperson, said she had been outspoken about her feeling that the party should have ceased all politics in the face of Tahrir's revival.

"I feel like Tahrir is something, and all the political parties are something else -- even the ones formed after the revolution -- and this will really hurt the parties," Mustafa said. "Personally, I am with Tahrir. I say it all the time."

For some people in the liberal political establishment, the renewed uprising in Tahrir could not have come at a worse time.

With insignificant reputations and small organizational structures, the new parties face the steepest challenge in winning the trust of voters. Losing their last week of campaigning to street protests in Tahrir Square has been a devastating blow.

But following last week's violence in Tahrir Square, most of the liberal and secular parties, SDP among them, have had few choices. Eventually, several of the young revolutionary candidates dropped out of the balloting altogether, leaving the liberal parties with their peculiar dilemma.

Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, the 71-year-old patrician of the SDP, said that his party had made the right decision to participate in Tahrir -- and the right decision to stay in the running, although he has asked for a two-week delay to the vote.

"It's a bit complex, because the liberal parties won by supporting the people in the square, but we lost in the campaigns in this very crucial period," he said recently. "I think in the end, we will lose more than we won."

Abou el-Ghar said it was still his hope that the party would garner about 30 seats in the parliament. Together with two other left-leaning parties, he hoped their bloc would amount to about 80 seats.

"If we have 80 seats, this is enough, this is great," he said. "Because this makes almost 20 percent of the seats, and this means that if other secular, liberal parties do well, then the Islamists will not have a majority in the parliament. And that's the main thing."

For the candidates themselves, to give up on the races at this late stage would be a very difficult decision.

"If we stop campaigning, the people that were supporting us will find themselves without anyone to represent them at all," Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, a candidate for the SDP in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut, said by phone on Saturday. "As far as I am concerned, Tahrir is a battleground where the party has to be competitive, and the elections are another battleground where the party has to be competitive. They are complementary. We have to find a way to compete in both of these struggles at the same time."

Meanwhile, for Raied Salama, the political process for which he has pined most of his adult life continues to deteriorate, leaving him feeling deeply saddened.

"It is disappointing," he said, as he gathered his things for the short flight to Luxor. "But I still have lots of high hopes we can get things done. I mean, after 30 years of unfair political treatment and corruption, the door has been opened. You cannot close it again."

Before You Go

Egypt Protests 11/24

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