Election posters in Egypt (Jonathan Rashad / flickr)
A powerful sense of innovation and possibility surrounded the February 2011 protests that pushed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak from office. If the results of the first round of Egypt's presidential elections last week are any guide, that sense has all but disappeared. The old guard is back, and the revolutionary youth and the populists are out. The two remaining candidates, Muhammad Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, represent the most hierarchical institutions in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. These institutions have been battling each other for more than half a century, and they won the first round not by finding creative ways to attract the center but by energizing their traditional bases.
Earlier this year, it seemed that things might turn out differently. One contender for power was the ad hoc youth coalition that pushed the revolution forward in January and February 2011. The young revolutionaries, including the Google executive Wael Ghoneim, shunned political hierarchy. Instead, they sought to establish a rhizomatic organization that stressed peer-to-peer communication. Disdainful of smoke-filled rooms and political intrigue, they asked supporters in May 2011 to submit questions via Facebook that they should ask the military (they got 850 suggestions), and they posted summaries of their meetings with the country's top brass on the Internet. In a world of political transition, they were giving postmodern politics a try.
But as postmodern politicians they could not bargain with powerful interest groups in Egypt, including the military. Tahrir Square had been great theater, but when the stage lights switched off there was no way to keep the attention of the masses. In fact, the revolutionaries' first defeat came more than a year ago in March 2011, when less than 25 percent of Egyptian voters joined them in opposing a slate of constitutional amendments meant to set the terms of Egyptian politics going forward. The group was defeated even more soundly in parliamentary elections last winter, when avowedly pro-revolutionary parties won just a handful of seats. Their disdain