Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Future Of Egypt's Protests

Egypt has experienced a new wave of protests as dissatisfaction with the pace of progress spreads. So what can it achieve?

By Issandr El Amrani

Cairo protests
Egyptian protesters shout slogans and wave national flags during a protest in Tahrir square this week. Photograph: Mohamed Omar/EPA
It's hard to keep following the consequences and outcomes of the protests and sit-ins that began last Friday. Here's a quick cheat sheet.
• The military is beginning to confirm that parliamentary elections will be around November, resolving the confusion over the fact that there is little time to prepare for their original stated schedule of September. The electoral registration and campaign period will begin in September, but the actual voting will be a month and a half or so later. I got it from the horse's mouth.
• The draft electoral law has been finalised by the government and presented to the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (Scaf), which has yet to decree it into law. It provides for a half list-based, half single district-based, electoral system. It will require redistricting (by whom?). It includes some provision for parties to place women towards the top of their lists, but does away with the women's quota.
• Prime minister Essam Sharaf is said to be negotiating the terms of a cabinet shuffle with the Scaf. Deputy prime minister Yehia al-Gammal has already resigned (a few weeks ago he had requested it but been denied by the Scaf, although he has also made himself unpopular). Other portfolios that could see changes include: interior, justice, religious endowments, manpower, civil aviation, transport, electricity and military production. The inclusion of that last one (and civil aviation) is significant, since it's protected territory of the military. A shuffle/replacement of governors could also take place at the end of the month.
• Nearly 600 police generals have been retired, and a total of 4,000 ministry of interior officials moved about. The latter may have been part of a routine naming of new positions, but the former is still significant, even if it falls short of a coherent long-term plan for security sector reform.
• The Scaf and government have promised to appoint dedicated judges for the prosecution of former regime officials and make their court sessions available on live television. Details are still scarce on this one, but if true a long overdue decision, but still short of a proper, exceptional, transitional justice system.
All of this only addresses some of the protesters' concerns, but it certainly shows that protests are still paying off! As a reminder, their demands are as reported by Daily News Egypt.
The future of the protests now hangs on several things. One is whether they are satisfied with concessions so far – this does not seem to be the case. I'm not sure how much traction they have on some of them: revisiting the budget seems unlikely at this point, for instance, and the Scaf/government can credibly make the case that a democratically elected government will be better place to make decisions that might mean extra debt, etc.
Other demands seem to be worth fighting for, notably the end of military tribunals and limits on the powers of the Scaf (which might be meaningless considering their ability to act regardless of whatever limits there are.) One should also note that some protestors would also add to the above list the cancellation of the law passed in March criminalising strikes.
The other question is whether popular support for the strikes continues. The protesters raised eyebrows when they threatened to block the Suez Canal (a nuclear option) and blocked highways between Suez and the port of Ayn Sukhna, and shut down the Suez port of Adabiya /Port Tawfik. In Cairo the blockade of the Mugamma was criticised, and of course many are muttering about the traffic jams caused by the occupation of Tahrir.
But my impression is that the media is generally cautiously supportive of the protesters' aims, even among conservative mainstream voices. The Muslim Brothers, who are not participating in the sit-in in any official capacity, are staying largely quiet or are making calls for Egyptians to rally behind the Scaf. I'm not sure how well that message will go across after General al-Fangari's lecture a few days ago, disliked by many who resented his hectoring and paternal tone (reminiscent, of course, of none other than Hosni Mubarak himself).
The Brotherhood's line primarily seems to be to urge people to wait for the elections and an elected government, which will "carry out the aims of the revolution". I can't quite gauge how much support this (not altogether unreasonable) position has, but also can't help feeling that ever since the beginning of the revolution in January the Brotherhood leadership has been behind the curve of what change is possible. On the other hand, while others are pouring their energies into fighting the Scaf, they are no doubt building a formidable electoral machine.
The more important question might be how much general public support is behind Tahrir (and the other, much smaller, protests across the country). The turnout on Friday might be one indication of that.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 14/07/2011
-Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst on Middle Eastern affairs. He is a former North Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group and has contributed to The Economist, Middle East International and many other newspapers and magazines

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