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.
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.
Thanks to the massive popular move back to Tahrir, more fundamental change is the only way forward.
The new situation has to force all of us to rethink our positions. That includes me. I have been arguing for months in favor of Parliamentary elections as the only way to begin to build strong institutions with democratic legitimacy to hold the SCAF accountable. I still believe that this was the right position under the conditions of the last few months. But those arguments have been overtaken by events. It is almost impossible to imagine how meaningful, legitimate elections could be held in less than a week at a time of open battles in the center of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities. Many political forces have suspended their campaigns, and few voters are focused on the election. It is unlikely that a body elected under these conditions will command real legitimacy. As much as it pains me to come to this conclusion, and for all my fears that this will only lead to a longer-term delay in a democratic transition or become an excuse to exclude Islamists, it probably does now make sense to postpone the elections for a short period.
But postponing the elections only makes sense if the SCAF can be forced to agree to a much more dramatic and immediate transfer of power to a civilian government, with clear commitments to overseeing a rapid move towards elections. The crowds in Tahrir want to see fundamental change, and now is the chance to get it.
Issandr El Amrani (who with his colleagues writes the Arabist blog, an indispensable chronicle of Egypt's political and cultural currents), wrote after Tantawi's speech that Egypt is at a fragile, vulnerable moment, and the failure is not the military's alone.
The failure of SCAF's transition over the last nine months is not theirs alone. It is that of a good part of the political class that said nothing when key former regime figures where left alone for months, and Mubarak was in Sharm al-Sheikh with his sons. It is that of the Egyptian elite that went back to its privileged lifestyle and did nothing to address the social injustice in the country — not to always compare things to Tunisia, but there the private sector, trade unions and the government got together and negotiated 10-15% salary increases across the board. They bought social peace by renegotiating the social contract.
In Egypt you get the feeling that the upper class has completely ignored the social roots of the January uprising, and at the same time backed a return to similar kinds of politics of patronage, where parties and movements try to buy the poor with handouts and cheap meat at Eid. People don't want to be given charity, they want to be given social rights. This too is political — it's not about economic mismanagement. It's not about an uprising of the poor. It's about the political vision for a social economy.
Writing for us yesterday from Cairo, Kristen Chick also finds that a feeling of a revolution unfulfilled is dominant on Tahrir.
Many billed the renewed protests, which come less than a week before parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin, as a continuation of the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in February – and protesters again insist that they will stay put until the leader in their sights steps down. Some even appear willing to risk their lives as security forces fire not only tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters, but also birdshot and – according to field doctors – live ammunition.
Meanwhile Shadi Hamid, the research director at Brooking's Doha Center, argues that postponing elections now would be precisely the wrong thing to do. Why? Because it would entrench military rule, and perhaps inflame Islamists who are expected to do well at the polls.
There is little doubt that Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, will dominate next week's elections in Egypt. Liberals are in disarray, apparently gaining little from an extension of the transition period. Members of the main "revolutionary" list – with little funding and little chance of gaining seats – are threatening to withdraw from the polls. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, is poised to secure, by a wide margin, the largest share of parliamentary seats (I've explained why here and here). This has made many liberals and leftists less enthusiastic about elections than they might otherwise be.
If the elections are delayed, Islamists will perceive it as a soft coup, and one directed against them. I asked one Brotherhood official if they would hold mass demonstrations in response. He said yes, but that would only be the "start." He continued, "At that point, we will be willing to consider all peaceful options." The same official told me he believed the army may have deliberately provoked protesters to create a pretext for postponing elections.