On Cairo’s Violent Streets, an Untenable Status Quo Meets an Unwritten Future

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With reporting by Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo

“Say it, don’t be afraid: the military council has to leave,” chanted some of the tens of thousands of protesters who thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square Tuesday night. Their slogan was a combative response to the  junta’s plan, announced hours earlier in an unprecedented television address by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, for a transfer of power to an elected civilian government next summer. But with at least 31 dead and 600 wounded in ongoing clashes in and around the square over the past four days, Tantawi’s offer to expedite a handover to civilian executive authority that his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had originally planned to delay until 2013, was too little, too late—at least for the many thousands that have taken to the streets again, having risked life and limb to oust Mubarak, only to see authoritarian power revert to the military core of his regime.

If it was designed to calm the situation, Tantawi’s speech had the opposite effect: Following his broadcast, battles raging in Tahrir’s side streets grew even more ferocious, spilling into surrounding neighborhoods late Tuesday night. And they carried on into a fifth day Wednesday, with street battles occuring around the heavily fortified Interior Ministry. But the crisis in the post-Mubarak transition that has revealed itself in recent days could force all of the key players to change their political scripts.

For protester Ekrami Abdel Azim, the matter is simple: The generals cannot be allowed to remain in power. “The military is always killing people and claiming that it’s the invisible fingers who are doing this,” he said. Earlier this month, he watched a fellow demonstrator shot alongside him as the military swept in to crush a protest in Damietta against poisonous pollutants issuing from the Agrium fertilizer plant. For others braving the Square on Tuesday, the turning point came when the military massacred 27 people, mostly Christian protesters, outside the state TV building on October 9, or when soldiers had forcefully cleared Tahrir during protests in July. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is deceptive,” Azim warns. “The clues that they want to stay in power is there in all these injuries, in the supra-constitutional principles, and in the delay of the presidential election until 2013.”

Tantawi had, of course, pledged on Tuesday to bring that election date forward and insisted that “We don’t want to stay in power, we never wanted to.” He also maintained that the military had never shot any Egyptians. But the crowd was no longer buying it. A banner in the square mimicked the text that Egyptians see on the screens of their mobile phones when their prepaid air time expires: “I’m sorry Field Marshall, your credit has ended.”

Tantawi, the 76-year-old who served as President Hosni Mubarak’s defense minister, has ruled Egypt as the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since the generals eased the strongman into retirement last February. Yet Tuesday marked the first time he’d addressed the citizenry, and he did so in circumstances that might have been familiar to his old boss—he was the target of the fury of tens of thousands of Egyptians on the street to demand an immediate transfer of power.

The derision with which the SCAF chief’s words were greeted on the Square was reminiscent of the desperate final days of Mubarak, when the strongman and other officials made repeated TV appearances making new offers, as if bargaining with the crowds. But despite the breadth of the protest —rich young women sporting expensive sunglasses wandered through the throng along with poor men in tattered gallabiyas, veiled women, children, and Islamist activists— it may be early yet to predict a precipitous collapse of the junta. Much depends on whether those in Tahrir Square, and on the streets of Alexandria and other cities, are able to win support for a new revolutionary confrontation from the vast majority of Egyptians who remain passive observers sidelines.

There’s a bitterness and frustration, almost an air of desperation in the air now: The demonstrators don’t trust the generals, and they vow not to be duped again into accepting anything less than SCAF stepping down and returning to barracks, making way for a civilian “government of national salvation.” The violence unleashed by the security forces over the weekend has hardened their resolve to hold the Square until they have won Tantawi’s resignation.

Autocratic power and its trappings, however, have been the exclusive preserve of Egypt’s military for the past six decades: Mubarak, and Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser before him, were all military men, who owed their presidencies to their status in the armed forces. The latest round of clashes were triggered, in fact, when SCAF last Thursday announced “supra-constitutional principles” to which those elected to write a new constitution would have to adhere, and which not only kept the military exempt from civilian oversight and command, but also reserved for its leaders a role of “guardianship” over the democratic political process.

Ceding power to civilians would certainly be a counter-intuitive step for a military that has been the source of political power in Egypt since the coup of 1952, and the performance of the SCAF since assuming power —maintaining draconian emergency laws, detaining thousands of democratic activists and subjecting many to arbitrary military justice, and setting the rules and timetable for a political transition by diktat—has hardly generated optimism over its intent.

Tantawi’s speech may have been an opening bid, a way to speed up the presidential election, but Egypt in military hands for most of the next year. He did concede that if it was the will of the people, established through a referendum, that the military step down immediately, it would do so. But, of course, no such referendum is scheduled, and the generals may be counting on the consent of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose priority is going ahead with the parliamentary elections scheduled to begin next week, and in which its Freedom and Justice Party is expected to garner the largest share of the vote. Clearly, it’s not going to be enough to bring the latest crisis to a close.

As analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution told the New York Times, “The gap between the military and the protesters is so large now as to be almost impossible to close… The maximum of what the military can offer doesn’t meet the minimum of what the protesters are demanding.” That, notes Cairo-based blogger Issandr al-Amrani leaves just two scenarios for ending the standoff: “Massive force by the police and army, which seems unlikely for now, or a much grander gesture than what Tantawi is offering tonight, one with a convincing vision for Egypt’s future.”

While the military appears to be scrambling for new measures of appeasement—it reportedly tried to get liberal favorite Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei to accept the role of interim Prime Minister on Tuesday, but the Nobel laureate former IAEA chief was reportedly reluctant to take the job without first establishing its independence from military diktat, and some form of popular mandate—the opposition doesn’t necessarily have a unified position of its own. The lack of cohesion was evident  Tuesday on the Square: Rich kids tweeted sarcastically about the Islamists operating alongside them at the protesters’ field hospitals; some Christians still insist that the Muslim Brotherhood is in cahoots with the military, even though many of them were active in Tuesday’s demonstration, despite the reluctance of their leadership to endorse a new wave of protest lest they jeopardize next week’s election.

Still, there was teamwork. Corridors opened up in the sea of bodies to allow ambulances through; human chains formed to protect field hospitals and the faithful bowed in prayer. Strangers sprayed one another’s scarves with an alkaline solution to mitigate the suffocating sting of the tear gas. So enormous were the piles of donated medical supplies that they gave the impression that volunteer medics were expecting the standoff to last for weeks.

It may well do, with many in the Square expecting a more torrid test than they faced in ousting Mubarak in February. The crisis provoked by the authorities’ handling of last weekend’s protests has forced all of the key stakeholders out of their political comfort zones: The military, the Muslim Brotherhood and its various factions, and other opposition groups in the protest action may be forced, in the coming days, to recalibrate their tactics. After all, Friday is coming, and with it comes prospect of yet another fateful day of prayer in Tahrir Square.