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CAIRO – In downtown Cairo last week, dozens of familiar faces from Tahrir Square gathered at the Journalists' Syndicate to discuss the next stage of the revolution. The lobby buzzed with the crackle of a shoddy sound system, scattered conversation, and the barks of organizers to keep it down. With none of their candidates making it through to the runoff in Egypt's presidential election, scheduled for June 16 and 17, the revolutionaries were gathering to discuss pushing the nation to boycott the next stage of the very democratic process they fought to establish.
Standing in the crush of T-shirts, jeans, and scruffy beards, Nadine Wahab, one of the coordinators of Our Right, a movement that grew out of opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei's canceled presidential campaign, seemed satisfied. "The boycott is a stand against the entire election process and not any one candidate," she said. "The question is whether the process itself will be a step in the transition of Egypt, and in my opinion it isn't."
The revolutionaries' strategizing was once again thrown into turmoil on June 2, when an Egyptian court sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak to life in prison but dismissed charges against his sons and top security officials. The ruling, widely derided as insufficient and politically motivated, re-energized the Egyptian protest movement: Thousands flocked to Tahrir to express their outrage at the ruling, chanting, "Not felool or the Brotherhood, the people want a president from the square!" (It sounds better in Arabic.) Politicking was never far from the surface, as Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsy joined the crowd in the hopes of changing the minds of boycott supporters like Wahab by associating himself with the revolutionary moment.
But the return to Tahrir doesn't resolve the revolutionaries' primary dilemma: In a few short weeks, Egyptians will go to the ballot box to choose a president who will not be from their ranks. Their choices are Morsy, the candidate of a conservative Islamist group that has a poor record of working with secular activists, and Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the former regime who has publicly praised Mubarak and openly called for trampling anyone who dares protest.
The renewed revolutionary zeal has buoyed activists' shared assumption that they are not alone in their fight. But on the million-dollar question of what to do next -- boycott the vote entirely, approach Morsy with demands for concessions in exchange for political support, push a "nullification campaign" to convince 51 percent of voters to spoil their ballots, or plug an initiative for a five-member presidential advisory council -- some stalwart activists remain torn.
When I caught up again with Wahab on the night of June 3 near Tahrir Square, she told me she wasn't sure whether she would participate in the boycott, saying she might join the nullification campaign in an effort to discredit the election. She thinks it is still a mistake to negotiate with the Brotherhood, though the renewed protests do give the revolutionaries more leverage. "I'm still hesitant about what the real next step is, but I'm considering [nullifying my ballot]," she said. Though Wahab cautions the revolutionaries who want to negotiate with Morsy to remember the Brotherhood's track record, "I now think, OK, it's still a very bad decision, but at least now I can say, you're going to the table with a bit of an even field," she said, referring to the rising number of people in the streets.
The idea of a presidential coalition is also gaining momentum in revolutionary circles. Parliamentarian Zyad Elelaimy, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition -- one of the groups that organized the first day of the 18-day uprising -- said that the coalition is planning to agitate for an "advisory board" composed of Morsy, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, and maverick Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who would then choose two more members and govern for a year. Shafiq, whom Elelaimy maintains should be disqualified based on a recently passed law that bars former top regime officials from running for office, would be excluded.
"We have to make the people discover if the candidates who are saying that they are part of the revolution are working for themselves or working for the revolution," Elelaimy told me. The coalition will be tasked with choosing a new constitutional committee, holding new elections, and instituting a taskforce on transitional justice.
But whatever happens next, there is widespread agreement that the revolutionaries' performance since the magical 18 days of protest that ended Mubarak's reign has been nothing short of disastrous. "We fucked up a lot," said Ahmed Hawary, a leading member of Our Right who ran as part of a liberal coalition in last year's parliamentary election and was defeated. "We're always fucking up. Since day one, it's all a series of being fucked over by our own decisions. Since March 2011, it's downhill all the way from there."