THE ATTACK on Cairo protesters on Wednesday that left 11 dead underlined once again both the heavy price Egyptians are paying for their transition to democracy and, in the middle of a presidential election of regional significance, its precariousness.
The protesters suspect that the assault by thugs with guns, clubs and knives on a week-long protest outside the ministry of defence was, at best, deliberately ignored by complicit security services – there is no disputing their inaction for several hours – at worst, actively encouraged. Several previous, similar attacks have seen plainclothes police implicated in the violence, and many wonder how civilians would get access to the tear-gas guns in use on Wednesday. Activists across the political spectrum blame the military council which is due to hand over power to an elected president in June.
In protest at the violence, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Mursi; a former leader of the group, now standing as an Independent Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh; and two others have temporarily suspended their presidential campaigns. But Mursi warned the military against using the violence as an excuse to delay the polls, reflecting a common fear that it is just looking for a pretence to retain power.
The dynamics of the election itself have also taken a significant turn in the last week, with the decision of the hardline Salafi movement and its allied party al-Nour to back Fotouh after its candidate Khayrat el-Shater was debarred from standing. Fotouh is a liberal Islamist doctor, a founder of a 1970s student movement that revitalised Egypt’s Islamist politics, and a former leader of the brotherhood who was expelled from it last year. He has garnered support from secularists for his unwillingness, unlike the Salafists, to make Sharia law state law.
The surprise Salafist support is both an important acknowledgment that it recognises this is not a realistic prospect in the immediate future, and an attempt to ensure that its fierce rival, the brotherhood, now dominant in parliament, does not have a monopoly on power.
Their decision, a poll on Monday suggests, has turned the first round of the election on May 23rd largely into a two-horse race, with Fotouh and former head of the Arab League Amr Moussa well ahead of the field of 11, likely to face each other in the June run-off. Although Moussa gained street cred for his part in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, his time in the old regime still makes him a suspect figure. A head to head with Fotouh will make for a fascinating and unpredictable contest.