As Violence Roils Cairo’s Streets, What Does Egypt’s Junta Want?

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The clashes that killed at least 24 Egyptians and wounded scores more on Sunday will have deepened suspicions over the intentions of the country’s military junta, which took power from President Hosni Mubarak last February and promised a transition to democracy. The violence came as a predominantly Christian crowd protesting against the military rulers’ handling of violent attacks on Coptic Churches by sectarian Salafist Muslims, found itself under attack from thugs in civilian clothing, and then clashed with soldiers. Government spokesmen claimed there had been fatalities on both sides, and the military-appointed interim Prime Minister Essam Sharif warned that the country was lurching back into the type of instability it had seen at the height of the Tahrir Square clashes in February.

(See photographs of the latest Cairo violence)

Egypt-based blogger Issandr al-Amrani warned that Sunday’s violence “marks the first time that the army has taken such an aggressive posture against a predominantly Christian protest, which will easily lead the framing of today’s events as the first time that the military chooses to kill protesting Christians.”

Al-Amrani found the events worrisome because “state television has behaved thus far tonight much as it did during the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising this winter, [deploying] propaganda, unverifiable allegations, talk of ‘foreign agendas’ and ‘outside hands’, and extremely partial reporting.” He heard TV reporters urging Egyptians to “protect the army from the Copts”, and later saw crowds in parts of Cairo to launch sectarian attacks on Christians.

Interim Prime Minister Sharif said, “What is taking place are not clashes between Muslims and Christians but attempts to provoke chaos and dissent.” But many longtime observers of the Egyptian scene will wonder just who is out to provoke chaos. The Mubarak regime had a long history of exploiting sectarian tensions, even cynically allowing periodic outbreaks of violence in order to “demonstrate” that its authoritarian rule was all that protected Egypt from chaos. It could tell the Christian minority (10% of the population) that the regime protected them from the Islamists; and even tell the Islamists that the regime would keep the Christians in line. Just a year ago, the Mubarak regime was widely seen as tacitly encouraging an upsurge in Muslim-Christian tensions. And while the Tahrir Square rebellion prompted the military to orchestrate Mubarak’s ouster, the essence of his regime — a system of power rooted in the upper echelon of the security forces rather than in democratic constitutional sovereignty — remained very much intact.

Even before this weekend’s violence, Egypt’s democracy activists — and many foreign observers — had begun vocally questioning the wisdom of handing the armed forces the same autocratic powers enjoyed by Mubarak, including control over the timing and content of a democratic transition.

The U.S. ambassador to Cairo last week noted that nobody — not even the generals themselves — knew how long the military junta known as SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) plans to stay in power. The point, of course, is that such decisions are entirely in the hands of the generals themselves. The popular uprising that forced the military brass to jettison Mubarak — all the while preserving the corpus of a military-based regime — has lost the initiative, and the leverage. Today, the civilian political parties petition the generals as supplicants rather than as elements of a civilian political leadership to whom the generals would eventually be accountable.

Last weekend’s agreement between the main political parties and the government on the terms and timetable for elections highlights the extent to which the generals are able to whip the political class into line. The agreement saw SCAF withdraw a requirement that one third of parliamentary seats would be reserved for independents (seen as a backdoor for former regime officials to keep a foothold in power) and to consider narrowing the scope of Mubarak’s draconian Emergency Law, a focal point of anger in the January revolution that has nonetheless been reinstated and broadened in scope by the junta. In exchange, the political class was required to bend the knee to the generals, accepting that they would rule at least until 2013 and the continuation of the Emergency Law. That exchange made it abundantly clear that the generals now set the terms of Egypt’s political future, and it requires an epic suspension of disbelief to take their ‘democratic’ rhetoric at face value: The military has served as the foundation of authoritarian rule in Egypt for the past six decades — it requires a profound paradigm shift within Egypt’s military to subordinate itself to a civilian leadership chosen by a sovereign electorate; remember, while Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser might have taken off the uniform once they became president, all of them only got the job as a result of their status within the military-based system.

SCAF appears to have cowered the political class into accepting that it will hold executive power at least until 2013, and it will set the rules for any transition. The “revolution” is starting to look a lot more like a garden-variety military coup, staged with a view to quelling a popular rebellion.

A walking tour in civilian garb in Cairo last week by SCAF chief Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi prompted speculation that the junta may be hoping to put up a candidate of their own, although he rushed to deny the claim. Then again, it could simply be a trial balloon: Right now, none of the restraints on the military typical of a democratic society are in place in Egypt; the rules of the post-Mubarak game are literally and figuratively being written by an opaque committee of generals.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, visiting Egypt last week, expressed confidence in the generals doing the right thing, although you have to wonder whether the Obama Administration has made up its mind whether it prefers military rule to a civilian democracy that would in all likelihood adopt policies at odds with Washington’s on a number of issues.

But there’s little likelihood of the military heeding Washington’s wishes if those differ with its own agenda — after all, nobody else in the Middle East does, these days. And the junta — whose dwindling foreign currency reserves represent a crisis in the making for a country that imports almost half of its food and most of its wheat — has been promised $4 billion (more than twice as much as it gets annually from the U.S.) in aid by Saudi Arabia, which makes no bones about its hostility to the democratic wave sweeping the Arab world, regardless of Washington’s preferences.

Of course, many of those who risked life and limb to oust Mubarak last February are increasingly unwilling to accept the junta’s terms — a point underscored by the moves by some of the political parties in the past week to distance themselves from last weekend’s agreement with SCAF.

Now crowds are coming out onto the streets to challenge the generals, and their handling of the sectarian issue. But, of course, the sectarian issue itself is one easily manipulated to create a specter of chaos — and make the argument for Egypt to be ruled by a strong hand. And there are certainly elements within the Islamist camp, first and foremost the Salafists, equally inclined to stoke sectarian impulses for their own political ends. Having enjoyed unexpectedly rapid successes in its springtime flowering, Egypt’s revolution may now be facing a bitter and uncertain winter.

MORE: Who’s Behind Egypt’s Sectarian Violence?