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. 

Khalil Hamra/AP
An activist tries to throw a tear gas grenade back at riot police in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

It was a pattern we'd seen before. A vast, peaceful turnout on Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday. Though it was led by bearded Islamists, leftists, liberals, and middle class families were all in the crowd. Their message was simple: End military rule, now.

Most trickled home at the end of the day, but a cluster of revolutionary stalwarts erected tents, seeking to start another long-term occupation of the central Cairo square that became synonymous with the people-power movement that ended Hosni Mubarak's three decades in power.

This morning tens of thousands returned, demanding the fall of the military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi that now runs Egypt. Then came the unfortunately familiar response: Massed ranks of riot police, many so undisciplined they started stone-throwing standoffs with protesters, while engaging in volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets, and baton charges.

The battle for Tahrir raged through the afternoon, with skirmishes spreading through Cairo's warren of tight streets and smaller squares. The call went out for reinforcements to "ultras," tough and organized supporters of big soccer clubs like Ahli and Zamalek, and they poured into the square, apparently securing it for the demonstrators as night fell and state security forces fell back.

Egyptian media said the fighting injured at least 100 people. Usually reliable sources on Twitter said at least two of the protesters had lost eyes to rubber bullets. A state security truck was overwhelmed and set on fire in the square, smoldering into the evening in pictures beamed round the country and the world.

Not exactly the best table setter for a parliamentary election scheduled to being on Nov. 28, is it? In fact, it raises questions about whether the elections -- poorly prepared for by all accounts -- will come off on time at all. Al Masry Al Youm (Egypt Today) reported this morning that a number of prominent opposition figures, including Mohammed ElBaradei, the former IAEA boss who's running for president, have urged the military to scrap the current transition plan.

They want an election for a constitutional convention fully empowered to chart the country's future course, arguing that a parliament elected under existing rules will leave the military, which now acts as Egypt's president, with too much power to set the rules for the future.

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.

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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