Egypt's activists face an impossible choice

Forced to choose between an Islamist and an ex-general, optimism is fading among Egypt's young.

I could see the tears in her eyes.

"We must go back to the streets. The revolution did not happen for this."

In a visit to Cairo earlier this month, I heard direct the frustration of those whose courage and commitment helped end Egypt's dictatorship last year. The choice for Egyptians in this week's Presidential run-off between Mohammed Morsi, representing the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafiq, a remnant of the Mubarak regime, was not one the young activist could stomach.

The veteran dissidents of the Mubarak years were more reflective. "It is not what I would have chosen, but it is progress. If you had told me five years ago that we would have had an election in Egypt where 90 per cent of the vote was divided between five candidates, I would not have believed you."

Later this week, the people of Egypt return to the polls for the second round in their presidential elections. Many have described the choice they face as impossible.

The first round eliminated, in a poll characterised by its closeness, the centrist candidates. In a febrile political environment, the last two weeks has seen the sentencing of former President Mubarak to a term of life imprisonment but the acquittal of his sons on corruption charges. The latter decision prompted a return of mass demonstrations to Tahrir Square. The frustrated youth who brought revolution to Egypt are deeply afraid that the revolution is in danger.

"Whatever happens, Shafiq will win," one voice warned me. Snatched conversations on the street with those in uniform, and there are many of them, testify to the continued importance of the army in Egyptian politics. They see their jobs, their status and their futures under threat. There is a profound, broadly-held scepticism that the military will ever allow their role to be subject to democratic scrutiny. Until they do, the capacity of Egypt to operate as a democratic society will be constrained to the point of impotence. Real power will stay with the army.

"My real fear is that the Brotherhood will cut a deal with the army," another experienced dissident voter told me. "The deal will be made before the election and the Brotherhood and the military, the two parties with organisation, will deliver it." The price will be limits to progress in the revolution - on military control, on women's rights, on real accountability.

There is little optimism in the air. The ambitions of Tahrir Square, so heady in the spring of 2011, seem distant now.  But In a nascent democracy, there is much to be done. New political parties, with distinct ideologies, need to develop and to learn to organise. Those I spoke to in the Freedom and Justice Party, which relies heavily on the organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, are deeply suspicious of international co-operation of competitor parties.

What are they afraid of? Democracy requires different parties and new political activists are eager to learn from those with a democratic tradition. The sooner those with power learn this, the quicker confidence in Egyptian democracy will build.

A new generation has formed a new government in Egypt. But governmental power in Egypt still has limits: the army allows government to operate and government operates with the army's consent. This fundamental obstacle to full democracy in Egypt remains. It will not be overcome by this week's election. But, if full and stable democracy is to come to Egypt, the army, its budget and its power must be placed under democratic control.

That ambition is one which many Egyptians I spoke to share still. They know that is an ambition that will be difficult to realise and one that will not come quickly. But many who spent years in prison under President Mubarak see that steps forward have been taken. More steps are needed, but the political prisoners of the past are still political activists today. They are impressively determined that the journey to democracy will continue - beyond the election this week which gives them a choice they find difficult to bear.

An Egyptian protester holds a crossed out portrait of presidential candidate and former premier Ahmed Shafiq. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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