Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Egypt: An Enduring Tahrir Protest Revokes The Military's Free Pass

As Tahrir Square protesters and other Egyptians debate the shape of a new government and its relations with the military, what is amazing is that what the public thinks actually seems to matter.
By Issandr El Amrani
Cairo's Midan Tahrir - and several other squares in other Egyptian cities - has been a source of inspiration in recent weeks. The joyful spirit of the Egyptian revolution has been rediscovered there, under a makeshift white canopy that provides much-needed relief from the July sun, in a crowded labyrinth of tents pitched closely together. The protest grounds are as dense as any city in this country where 97 per cent of the population lives on the 3 per cent of territory that borders the Nile.
The protesters who have seized this space are ingenious. They pirate electricity to run computers, wireless networks, fans, lights - some were even overheard making plans to bring in a portable air conditioner. A space here is turned into a hairdresser's shop, another there into the headquarters for the three dozen political parties and movements that are conducting this experiment in communal protest politics.
Towards dusk, the stages that have been erected at various points on the square come alive, oversize speakers crackling with the latest political chants and diatribes. Later in the evening the musical acts take over, and as the air cools the square becomes increasingly packed. Those who cannot stay the whole day (because they have jobs to go to or children to take care of) visit at night, bringing supplies for friends and relatives or just taking in the festive atmosphere.
But it's not all fun and games. The core of activists who are organising the sit-in must conduct tough negotiations, not just with the government and Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), but also among themselves.
They have managed - somewhat amazingly - to stick to seven core demands, ranging from an end to military tribunals to expedited trials of former officials to the replacement of officials whose performance, or allegiance to the former regime, displeases them.
Not everyone has the same priorities, though, and one notable division is to what extent the military must be challenged and at what point the protests will have lasted long enough.
When the military finally buckled under public pressure and deposed Hosni Mubarak on February 11, the protest movement did not initially know whether the generals could be trusted. But they had banked on the idea that the army would not fire on protesters, that it was, as the chants then put it, "one hand" with the people.
Many knew better than this, but felt the country wanted respite after those 18 tumultuous days that brought down the Mubarak regime. Many muttered that Hussein Tantawi, Mr Mubarak's minister of defence of nearly 20 years and now the head of the SCAF, was hardly the man to lead a transition to democracy.
What the Tahrir commune expresses is the end of this grace period for the Egyptian military. It is not just highly politicised protesters and human rights activists who now complain about the SCAF; many ordinary Egyptians are shocked at how ineffectual their country's interim leadership has been.
Policemen accused of murdering protesters are released on bail; trials of former officials move along at a glacial pace; generals adopt the same patronising, hectoring tone that Mr Mubarak was famous for; state TV engages in propaganda eerily similar to that seen under the previous regime.
It is not just that the military council is perceived as being a "counter-revolutionary" force with an interest in maintaining a certain status quo. As well as this, there is a crisis of confidence in its ability to deliver an ordered transition: incompetence may be as much as a problem as recalcitrance.
There is little alternative to a military-led transition for now, and only the radical fringe of the protest movement is suggesting otherwise. But the debate of the last two weeks has changed the optics of Egypt's transition; the emerging narrative is now cautious about the military and concerned with ensuring a return to full civilian rule once elections take place.
The debate has already started on whether the military will keep for itself a "guardian" role (as in Turkey in the 1980s), on ensuring that the next (democratically elected) president is supreme commander of the armed forces, and on whether parliament will have oversight over the military budget. Some presidential candidates already seem to be angling for the army's support by suggesting some special role; they have been met with fierce criticism.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who have generally backed the army since February and kept quiet on its abuses, were forced to take part in protests on July 8, even if they withdrew afterwards. Like all political parties, they are keeping one eye on the generals and the other on the street.
The miracle is that, for the first time in a very long while, the street can actually matter as much as who wields the guns. In this delicate balance of forces, small events - a harshly repressed strike or protest, an injustice for the relatives of the martyrs of the revolution, a new case of police abuse - can spark real change, like this week's cabinet shuffle.
This must confound the generals who are used to blind obedience - but even they realise that many ordinary Egyptians, having already sacrificed much, will settle for nothing less than getting their way.
-This commentary was published in The National on 19/07/2011
-Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo

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