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What's next for Egypt?

A roundup of Egypt analysis after the mass protests – and harsh crackdown – around Tahrir Square over the past few days. Some democracy supporters advocate delaying next week's elections.

By Staff writer / November 23, 2011

A protester throws a tear gas canister, which was earlier thrown by riot police, as another protester waves the Egyptian flag at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Monday.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

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Cairo is on fire again, downtown streets are filled with tear gas, Molotov cocktails, and the crack of rubber bullets. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's de facto leader, took to state TV last night to address the blossoming crisis. He offered little new beyond a promise to accelerate presidential elections to July 2012, and the protesters weren't mollified.

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Now people on the ground say increasingly militant protesters are seeking out conflict with security forces downtown. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) doesn't seem to have political answers. What comes next?

Obviously, it's hard to say. Parliamentary elections are still scheduled to begin next Monday, though they will take place in a tense environment of anger and distrust. Dozens of Egyptians have been killed in the past few days, and many hundreds more injured, some seriously.

The showdown is, at root, over military versus civilian rule. But behind that basic question lies more complicated terrain. Leftists, Islamists, and civilian friends of the old order are jockeying to define the Egyptian state, even as the economy continues to deteriorate. Any hopes for tourism to pick back up have been dealt a heavy blow by the fighting of the past few days.

Nevertheless, people who know the country well are picking their way through the present chaos to make informed guesses about where Egypt heads from here. And it isn't all bad news.

Steven Cook, author of the excellent new book The Struggle for Egypt and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote before Tantawi gave his speech that he and his fellow generals have made a hash of Egypt's transition.

What is happening in Tahrir Square – as frightening as it is – may very well be a clarifying moment. From the start, the Egyptian military's declarations that it was preparing the ground for democracy were far from credible. The officers' interest in remaining the sole source of political legitimacy and authority, the military's economic interests, and the Ministry of Defense's conception of stability are simply not compatible with a more democratic Egypt...

... Egypt's present impasse, and the violence that is its result, is a critical moment in the political transition. Of course, no one wants to see Egyptians doused with tear gas, shot indiscriminately with rubber bullets, or mowed down with armored vehicles -- but the willingness to take to the streets once again demonstrates that, in Egypt's battle of legitimacies, people are not going to willingly succumb to the military.

Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University who specializes in the modern Middle East, writes that in Egypt the game has changed.

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