Monday, November 21, 2011

The Next Phase

My weekend was dominated by pre-Thanksgiving binge grading, and so I'm only now getting my mind around the details of the tumult taking place, not just in Cairo, but Alexandria, the Suez Canal cities, and elsewhere around Egypt. The direct chain of events leading to the current clashes came when Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Silmi of the SCAF's transitional government proposed a set of "supra-constitutional principles" which he asked Egypt's political parties to sign on to in advance of the first round of parliamentary elections November 28. These included two controversial articles putting the military beyond the control and oversight of any elected civilian government. All of the Islamist groups and some of the leftist opposition refused these conditions, and on Friday staged a major protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square to pressure the SCAF into accepting a civilian-controlled government as quickly as possible. Marc Lynch explains what happened next:
"The Islamists and most other participants in the demonstration left Tahrir at the end of the rally. A few hundred people, mostly (it seems) families of the martyrs of the January 25 revolution and veterans of past Tahrir occupations, decided to launch a new sit-in. This does not seem to have been coordinated with the political strategy of the day's demonstration. The move risked going down the same path as the July 8 demonstration, an originally successful rally which squandered its gains with a wildly unpopular occupation of Tahrir.

"But then Egyptian security forces, acting on authority which remains murky, moved in with extreme force to drive out the small group attempting to occupy Tahrir. Their over the top violence, including massive tear gas and highly abusive police behavior, seems to have then attracted the attention of the core of Egyptian activists who came running to join the fight. Instead of rapidly clearing the square, the security forces found themselves locked in an epic running battle with thousands of protestors. The momentum shifted repeatedly, with protestors holding the square and then being driven out and then returning. The security forces used massive amounts of tear gas, brute force, and weapons. That battle rages on."

Today, on the third day of protests, the crowds have become large enough and the demonstrations geographically widespread enough to recall the days of the revolution last winter. They are demanding an end to SCAF rule, and lethal fighting continues at the entrance to the street leading to the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. The latter point suggests that the SCAF regime's frequent resort to violence in the face of any street opposition is the major sore point, and that a critical mass of Egyptians see the failure to rebuild the government's internal security apparatus as an important piece of unfinished revolution business.

Aside from the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood is the institutional political actor drawing the most scrutiny. MB leaders show a sensitivity to any slight against their potential influence, and seem to have, perhaps with some justification, interpreted the supra-constitutional principles as something akin to the Turkish tradition where the military stands on guard against Islamists. There is also muttering that this entire crisis might have been provoked deliberately to postpone the elections, in which their Freedom and Justice Party is expected to win upwards of 40% of the seats. Because of this, they are insistent that the elections go forward as scheduled, arguing that they represent the best way to bring a civilian government into power. The leftist opposition, however, seems to favor postponing the vote on the grounds the situation is too chaotic and the SCAF cannot be trusted to fairly administer it. The MB has been ambivalent towards the protests, expressing sympathy with the demonstrators grievances, refusing to participate as an organization, and yet highlighting the participation of individual MB members, especially medical personnel.

As a historian, I find it unsurprising that a revolution would traverse multiple phases, as that is simply what often happens. This is especially true when there is no ready made united opposition to assume the helm. Even in Tunisia, there were protests several weeks after Ben Ali fled to oust his prime minister, Muhammad Ghannoushi. In the Egyptian case, almost everyone seemed to put the regime's flaws primarily on Mubarak, and so were content to leave the transition to the military. Even then, I've seen a steady stream of stories in which a large number of groups fight for different types of influences and changes in local communities, businesses, and other institutions. It would not surprise me if Egypt's politics develop something like Kyrgyzstan did after the Tulip Revolution, with a steady ebb and flow of protest as groups with conflicting agendas that trust neither each other nor the system vie for influence.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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