Egypt Bleeds as the Battle over Democracy and Power Escalates

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Protesters run as police fire tear gas during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 22, 2011. (Photo: Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)

The last time blood flowed so freely in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the battle lines were simple to discern: Last January’s showdown was a classic people vs. the regime battle to oust President Hosni Mubarak, with the Army stepping in at the crucial moment to ease out the strongman. But the ongoing battle for control of the Square that has, since last Saturday, claimed 33 lives and wounded at least 1,500 — and on Monday appeared also to force the resignation of the transitional cabinet appointed by the generals — is part of an increasingly bloody battle for power in post-Mubarak Egypt, with more complex lines of division.

The death toll continued to rise, Monday, amid fierce clashes (see photos) in Cairo and other cities. And activists in the Square have called for a “Million Man March” on Tuesday, to demonstrate outrage at the military regime’s suppression of protests and, more importantly, its handling of the post-Mubarak transition. Egyptians began flowing on to Tahrir Square Tuesday as fresh clashes broke out. In the face of the escalating crisis, and with the first democratic parliamentary elections just a week away, the cabinet resigned en bloc. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that succeeded Mubarak and appointed the cabinet, was reportedly meeting Monday to consider a response. On Tuesday, Egyptian state television reported that the military rulers were in a crisis meeting with the leaders of political parties from across the spectrum with the head of the ruling military council expected to address the nation.

Discarding cabinet officials has, of course, been a tactic previously used by SCAF in order to assuage popular anger. Other such tactics have included the ritual humiliation of Mubarak through putting him on trial and outlawing participation in politics by members of his party. But the issue driving the latest round of clashes is one the junta can’t easily sidestep: It is SCAF’s own agenda, and its divergence from the democratic goals of the January “revolution,” that lies at the heart of the current protests.

The generals had claimed power for themselves after forcing Mubarak into retirement in the face of an unprecedented popular uprising, whose language and symbols they adopted, but whose democratic agenda was anathema to an institution that had been the very heart of Egyptian autocracy for six decades. While promising democracy, the junta essentially restored authoritarian stability. SCAF essentially replaced Mubarak, and mimicked his rule by diktat. Heavy-handed repression has continued unabated, with many thousands of Egyptians arbitrarily detained by the military in the months since Mubarak’s ouster, as the generals reinvigorated his hated Emergency Laws giving them a free hand to intervene, above the law, in suppressing dissent. The manipulation of religious tension has been another familiar theme, as was evident on Oct. 9 when the security forces appeared to enable and support thuggish attacks on Christian protesters.

And not only did the generals, all of them appointed originally by Mubarak, arrogate to themselves the right to prescribe the rules for a new political order, they also appeared to have a growing appetite to codify for themselves the final say in matters of governance. Late last week, the SCAF-appointed government announced ground rules for the drawing up of a new constitution that would exempt the military from civilian oversight, give it the last word in the political process and reserve for the generals the right to define security threats — the basis on which it had traditionally, for example, banned the Muslim Brotherhood and maintained draconian control over politics.

As Carnegie Endowment analyst Marina Ottaway explained, “This document shows that the military is simply imposing its peculiar version of democracy, heavily laced with military control, and completely disregards any attempt to build a true consensus around shared values.”

Cairo-based blogger and analyst Issandr El-Amrani has pointed out that while many liberals who initially supported the idea of military “guardianship” as a hedge against Islamist influence in a democratic system, many have now recognized democracy (flawed as elections may be by arcane Nasser-era rules and even with the likelihood of an Islamist victory) as the lesser evil to military rule.

And the escalating confrontation is likely to weaken the case of those traditional liberals who prefer military rule to an Islamist-led democracy. The events of the past week suggest that the Egyptian military’s claim to the sort of unaccountable “guardianship” authority that the ayatullahs claim for themselves in Iran appears rejected by the key political forces — even if the generals may have reason to believe they can exploit the sharp differences among the civilian political parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most influential of the political parties and the one predicted to emerge as the biggest winner in a democratic poll, last Friday staged a far larger, peaceful protest in the Square, demanding a speedier and more complete transition to democratic civilian rule than the junta had offered.

But after that demonstration, some — particularly veterans of the January movement, in which the Brotherhood had played a more limited role, mostly through its youth wing — stayed behind, setting up tents as they planned to reoccupy the Square. That prompted a ferocious crackdown by the security forces, which drew thousands more to the square, creating a pitched battle that has raged for two days and isn’t yet over.

The latest fight has highlighted the competing agendas among the different forces ranged against the regime. The activists in the Square have little interest in next week’s election, and a number had spoken of boycotting the poll: A number of liberal groups who were likely to be eclipsed at the polls by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have suspended their campaign activity in the face of the latest crisis. And such liberal champions as Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei have renewed calls for power to be transferred immediately to an unelected civilian “national salvation” government. (Needless to say, of course, liberal figures like Dr. ElBaradei have a better shot at being part of such a government than of winning elections.) But the Muslim Brotherhood has relentlessly opposed any transfer of power to an unelected group, mindful of the expectation that it will win a greater share of power at the polls.

Many of those fighting to hold the Square hope that, like in January, their tenacity in the face of repression will inspire a new wave of public sympathy and a nationwide uprising. But, as George Washington University Middle East specialist Marc Lynch warns,

Cairo outside of Tahrir itself thus far appears to range from indifference to antipathy. The SCAF remains broadly popular with the public, even if it has lost elite support. Egyptian state television’s irresponsible, heavy-handed pro-regime framing of the events has also likely played a role.  But whatever the case, the fighting has thus far remained limited to the same activist core.  If it had only been a few thousand people in Tahrir in January, they would have been easily defeated.  It was the millions which made the difference. While there have been rallies in support of the protestors in Alexandria and several other locations, in general those millions this time do not seem ready to join.

Still, things could change very easily, he acknowledges, particularly if the Brotherhood urged its mass support base to join in. While younger elements in the movement have been agitating for a more active role in the latest showdown, its leadership has vowed to protect the right to peaceful protest on the Square, and shield demonstrators from abuse by security forces, but at the same time, declared itself “against mass mobilization to avoid bloodshed.”

Even amid the ongoing clashes with the security forces, tensions between rival factions of the opposition may be rising. A leader of the Brotherhood’s electoral wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, was reportedly chased from Tahrir Square on Monday by men wielding shoes and bottles, after arriving to declare the party’s willingness to help protect the demonstrators but not to deliver the mass reinforcements the protesters were expecting. Antagonizing the Muslim Brotherhood may not be the smartest move for an activist core that could find itself dangerously isolated from public opinion. Tuesday’s turnout will be an important indicator of the prospects of the new Tahrir Square mini-rebellion.

Despite holding the reins, the latest clashes pose a crisis for the junta, divisions among the opposition notwithstanding. As Lynch notes, “The SCAF insists that it plans to go ahead with the elections despite the chaos. If it postpones them it risks the ire of both the Islamists and the international community, and would come under justifiable suspicion of having manufactured the events in order to torpedo the electoral process.  But it is equally almost impossible to imagine orderly, legitimate elections under these conditions.”

The violence could be turned to their advantage if the military had a clear plan to hold power. Referring to the 1952 military coup that installed the regime of which the SCAF is the latest incarnation, Alexandria University literature professor Amira Nowaira sees an ominous historical precedent:

In 1954 Egypt’s young officers created mayhem to justify their clampdown on opposition and renege on their democratic promises. The horrific events of the last couple of days in Tahrir and several other places in the country suggest that Egypt’s aging generals are reading the same manual and following the same strategy… The message sent by [the Oct. 9 attacks on Christian protesters] was not directed at Copts alone. It was a message sent to all Egyptians, telling them that SCAF would not tolerate dissent. Nor would it balk at using as much deadly violence as is required.

But many analysts maintain that the track record shows that the generals are improvising, with no clear strategy. Whether or not elections go ahead, however, what the events of the past three days has made clear is that they will not be the denouement of Egypt’s revolution. At best, they will simply mark a milestone in what promises to be a protracted battle for power. And that’s if they go ahead.