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Toss the Egyptian transition plan out the window

The military overplayed its hand and something has broken, again, in Egypt.

By Staff writer / November 22, 2011

Protesters chant slogans against head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, at Tahrir Square in Cairo Tuesday.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters

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The slogan "the Army and the people are one hand" was always a little self-serving for an Egyptian military hierarchy that views average Egyptians more as subjects than citizens. But it has been widely believed nevertheless.

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After the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) tapped Hosni Mubarak on the shoulder in February and told the dictator it was time to go, Egyptians greeted their new military rulers deliriously. Sure, there were allegations that the military used sexual and electric shock torture on democracy protesters within the month, just as Mubarak had, but most people thought those claims were exaggerated. Besides, state TV reported they were spies working to hurt Egypt.   

The original promise to give up power within six months, which had morphed into military rule until some point in 2013? Well, Egypt needs stability, and transition is hard. The military was still trusted. The killing of at least 27 Coptic Christians by soldiers – who have been accused of deliberately mowing down panicked members of the crowd with armored personnel carriers – outside state TV headquarters in October? Murmurs of disquiet.

But through it all Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of SCAF, had public acquiescence to drive Egypt's transition, which was scheduled to begin with a first round of parliamentary elections next Monday, Nov. 28. Now, it seems the ground has shifted beneath Tantawi's feet as profoundly as it did under Mubarak's in January, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians defied decades of state terror to flood the streets of Cairo and other cities.

Tantawi's missteps

The challenge was created by Tantawi's own missteps. The first misstep was an "extraconstitutional" document that Tantawi shopped in early November that sought to place the military beyond the reach of civilian authority, whoever emerges as the winner of coming parliamentary elections. That saw tens of thousands of protesters flood Tahrir Square last Friday, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead. (The Brothers had been largely cooperative with the military until this point, not wanting obstacles placed in the way of elections they look well positioned to win.)

Then on Saturday, a small group of protesters who'd stayed behind to press for an end to military rule were attacked by police. Rather than scaring protesters off the street, the violence attracted an ever-growing and angry crowd back to Tahrir, with protests breaking out in sympathy in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, in the economically vital port city of Suez, and at least three other cities.

Since Saturday, dozens of demonstrators have died at the hands of the military and police. Intense volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets, which have claimed the eyes of a number of protesters, only served to incite the crowds further. Today, Tahrir Square was flooded again with angry protesters, with much of downtown Cairo in an uproar.

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