Toss the Egyptian transition plan out the window

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

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters
Protesters chant slogans against head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, at Tahrir Square in Cairo Tuesday.

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.

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.

Tantawi was compelled to respond to the spiraling situation, which is raising grave questions about whether a calm and fair election can be held next Monday. In droning yet aggrieved tones, he insisted the election would go on, warned of "hidden hands" stirring the protests against military rule, and promised to allow elections for a new president by July 2012. He said the military had shown admirable restraint and also promised, while offering no details, to allow Egypt a referendum on military rule at some unspecified point in the future. That's pretty much a non-concession, absent specifics on, say, who exactly replace SCAF. For the moment his offer appears to be "us or chaos."

His speech only served to incense the activists in Tahrir Square, who responded at the end of his speech with booming chants of "irhal, irhal," ("leave") – the same response directed at Mubarak after his last-ditch speech to save his political career nine months ago.

Next steps

What happens next is hard to say. While the military's reputation has taken a hit, it would be a mistake to take the anger and demands of the protesters as a full expression of general Egyptian public opinion. Fear of chaos remains, as does a patriotic affection for the military. While the generals stepped in and took the reins when Mubarak fell, there is not so clear and obvious an alternative now as there was then. The Muslim Brotherhood remains eager for the elections to come off on time.

But the violence – with video footage that appears to show soldiers and police dragging the bodies of dead Egyptian democracy protesters into piles amid the garbage stacked along the fringes of Tahrir – has clearly shifted the outlook and mood for the Egyptian transition. It's hard to see Tantawi's words tonight as anything but an opening gambit in a process that is likely to see the plan for transition to civilian rule rewritten in the coming days and weeks.

Tantawi could have made dramatic concessions tonight. Had he, say, promised not to use military trials against civilian activists and pledged to release those already sentenced to jail time in such courts on his watch, it would have taken some of the air out of the anger on the square. He could have spoken about a military leadership committed to a fundamental shift in the way Egypt is run – one in which the military answers to elected civilian leaders, without question.

That he did not is a sign that SCAF continues to hold on to its ultimate desire – freedom to look after its own economic and political interests in whatever new Egypt emerges. The Obama administration has tacitly continued to stand by SCAF. Earlier this month, the State Department rejected calls to tie $1.3 billion in military aid to democratic reform. Yesterday, the White House called for "restraint on all sides," as if there was an equivalence between the armed agents of military rule, on the one side, and democracy protesters on the other.

“Should we stop dying? Is that how we should show restraint?” protester Salma Ahmed told the Monitor's Kristen Chick as gun fire rang out on Tahrir Square. Now everyone is considering their options. The pressure for a new approach seems destined to only grow now. 

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