Even as Egyptians prepared for a new show of force by pro-democracy protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the US pivoted from its earlier veiled admonitions to the military, instead giving outright support to the latest round of protests.
“The United States strongly believes that the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately,” the White House said.
“Most importantly,” the statement by press secretary Jay Carney added, “we believe that the full transfer of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, as soon as possible.”
The demand for an inclusive transition appeared to reflect mounting concerns among Egypt’s secular pro-democracy forces that the military leadership is fashioning a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s largest civilian political power, the Muslim Brotherhood, to the detriment of secular political parties.
The White House statement came as tens of thousands of protesters gathered Friday in Tahrir Square, the seat of Egypt’s revolution that in February deposed longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. The protesters want the interim ruling power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to make way immediately for a transitional civilian government. But at the same time, the protesters are demanding postponement of elections set to begin Monday.
The elections are supposed to deliver a parliament that will be tasked with writing a new Egyptian constitution. The deeply rooted Muslim Brotherhood is heavily favored to emerge triumphant from the elections as Egypt’s largest political force. Protesters want more time before elections for other political parties to organize and compete with the Islamists.
Not all Egyptians favor postponing the elections, however, and such a split could augur poorly for the country’s stability in coming months.
A counterdemonstration in support of Monday’s elections sprouted Friday outside Egypt’s Interior Ministry. Demonstrators at that site shouted a claim of representing the “real Egypt,” according to Agence France-Presse.
The new US pressure on Egypt’s military is not without its potential downsides. The US could find itself alienating a key American ally and guarantor of Egypt’s stability. And it’s advocating on behalf of political forces that may be much less favorable to the US and have a more tenuous grasp on the country’s stability.
The US provides the Egyptian military with more than $1 billion a year in aid and trains many of its officers. The military has long been a pro-American force in a population less disposed to supporting US goals in the region.
Another potential source of tumult is the military’s appointment Thursday of a former Mubarak-era official, Kamal Ganzouri, as prime minister for an interim civilian cabinet. Mr. Ganzouri is considered a potential presidential candidate, but his association with the Mubarak regime has also led many Egyptians to publicly dismiss him as a “dinosaur.”
Ganzouri’s appointment could be good news for Egypt’s economic prospects, given his past work with international financial institutions. But some cast doubt over whether he will last or indeed ever take office.
“He appears to be an ideal candidate,” says Said Hirsh, Middle East economist with Capital Economics in Toronto, noting Ganzouri’s role in improving Egypt’s relations with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1990s. “However, regardless of his economic credentials, the fact that he is associated with the previous regime means that news of his appointment is unlikely to help calm protests.”
In any case, the appointment is unlikely to help Egypt “avoid a full-blown political and economic crisis,” says Mr. Hirsh, who questions whether a Ganzouri government “will even see the light of day.”
The White House statement Friday reflects gradually increasing pressure on the interim military rulers. That pressure began early this month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech to democracy advocates.
“The truth is that the greatest single source of instability in today’s Middle East is not the demand for change. It is the refusal to change,” Secretary Clinton said in a Nov. 7 speech to Washington’s National Democratic Institute.
“If – over time – the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials,” she went on, “they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity.”