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Harsh crackdown in Tahrir ahead of Egypt's elections

Activists and reporters on the scene of six hours of running clashes with security forces in Tahrir Square today said it felt like the protests that toppled Mubarak last winter. Expect a tense runup to Nov. 28 elections. 

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Nine months since Mubarak fell, the military still holds the reins in the Arab world's largest country. An original promise to hold elections within six months fell by the wayside, and over the past month, the military and its political allies have been maneuvering behind closed doors to come up with rules to bind the hands of the incoming parliament on constitutional and political reform. They might consider the new proposal – but every sign they've given so far points in the opposite direction.

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Same bureaucrats as before

The three-stage election itself is being operated by largely the same bureaucrats and military officers who ran elections for Mubarak. The 2005 election was a sham, with state violence and ballot stuffing used to make sure Mubarak's allies filled the parliament. The November 2010 parliamentary election was even worse – probably the least-clean election since the 1950s.

The tight hold Mubarak and the military exerted on the political process last year was a reflection of the fact that the strongman was aging and reported to be in ill health. A presidential election would have been held this fall if Mubarak hadn't been pushed from power, and Cairo's elites were busy maneuvering to control the succession, with Mubarak's son Gamal the odds-on favorite at the time. An independently minded parliament would have just complicated efforts.

Military's low appetite for constitutional change

Now, the stakes are even higher, with the chance that the Egyptian Constitution will be rewritten to reduce the military's role in politics, make it subordinate and accountable to civilian leaders. This is something that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has shown little appetite for.

The fighting in Tahrir today does not bode well for the elections – nor does the way state-controlled television sought to spin events on Tahrir. Hosts and hand-picked guests hinted at "foreigners" behind the clashes, seeking to harm Egypt. Calls were taken from anonymous Egyptians demanding the military and police crush the demonstrators.

One state TV presenter reported, apparently erroneously, that protesters were assaulting cops with Molotov cocktails and declared "these are not the demonstrators of the Jan. 25 revolution." (I was in Egypt then, and many of the same people on Tahrir in January and February were present today.) 

Meanwhile, preparations for the elections continue. In many parts of Egypt, local strongmen organized violence to win their parliamentary seats under Mubarak, and they're running again. At least eight people were killed across Egypt during the 2010 election. Will the military defend voters from these former Mubarak allies, who can also be trusted to look after their own interests in the next parliament? Will they demand that the powerful state media acts as a neutral reporter of the coming election?

Today the military demonstrated that force is the language it knows best, and relies on.

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