A coalition of activists, Internet organizers, and opposition political groups that formed the backbone of the Egyptian revolution joined the country’s new military rulers today for a “getting to know you meeting.” They promised to hold the new regime’s feet to the fire on political reform.
“The military is more or less trying to meet with all of the groups involved at this point,” says Ahmed Naguib, a member of the board of the Coalition of the Youth of the Jan. 25 Revolution. “The meeting was just to tell them that a lot of demands have not been met yet. That’s why we’re calling for a million-man march on Friday, to remind them that sovereignty is back with the people for good.”
Egypt is in a period of incredible political ferment, with the military promising to usher in the substantive democratic reform that hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanded on the streets of Cairo and beyond.
But the military, an integral part of former President Hosni Mubarak's regime, faces skepticism from some in Mr. Naguib's umbrella group – as well as a potential challenge from laborers who have launched a series of strikes to capitalize on the revolution's momentum.
A few hours after the meeting, the junta issued a communiqué with ominous hints for how ongoing protests will be dealt with. The military said further protests will harm national security and urged protests – particularly labor strikes – to stop.
While it stopped short of outright banning demonstrations, the use of the language of national security – the statement also warned of the chance that "irresponsible groups" will take advantage of further protests to harm Egypt – strongly implied that it won't stand aside indefinitely.
The military's promises
The military pushed former President Hosni Mubarak from power on Friday and took charge for what they say is the good of the nation.
On Sunday, they dissolved both houses of parliament, suspended the Constitution, and promised sweeping political reforms to allow for fair elections within six months. At that point, the military junta led by Gen. Mohammed Tantawi (ret.) has promised, they will return to barracks.
Mr. Naguib says his umbrella group for young democracy activists, which includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth and young supporters of former United Nations nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, told officers today that they intend to keep the military to its promises.
He says organizers are confident that they’ll be able to energize large protests at the end of the week, even as military police cleared away the last vestiges of the extraordinary pro-democracy encampment that took over Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square during the popular uprising that started on Jan. 25.
Is he right? The Egyptian military has been urging Egypt to get back to work and is seeking to project an air of normalcy. Many of the youth who mobilized at Tahrir have been inclined to trust the military, and average Egyptians are wary of a confrontation with the military after two weeks in which the Army stayed neutral and allowed Mubarak to be swept aside.
“At the start, a tactical choice was made by the protesters to put the military on a pedestal and try to push it in the direction of the people, and I think that’s been an effective strategy,” says Shadi Hamid, research director of the Brooking Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “But the relationship is going to get a lot harder. Before, the military was a third player. Now they are the regime.”
Labor strikes, unmet demands
The military forcibly evicted some of the hard-core of protesters at Tahrir Square yesterday and today. Al Jazeera reports, citing an unnamed military source, that the military is planning to ban labor strikes and protests.
Labor strikes have spread like wildfire in the past two days, shutting down train service, disrupting some fuel deliveries, and convincing the military to order banks closed today due to strikes complaining of executive corruption and low wages at both private banks and the Egyptian central bank.
Banks will remain closed on Tuesday, which is a scheduled holiday to celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.
Naguib says a key unmet demand of the protesters is that hundreds of activists and demonstrators rounded up by the regime in the weeks since Jan. 25 remain in detention, as well as many more political prisoners from before the protests started.
Protesters divided on whether to trust military
Wael Ghonim, an activist close to Mr. ElBaradei who was in the meeting with military officers today, posted a review of it at the “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook page.
He said the activists were treated as equals, not subordinates, and that "I feel we are on the right path to achieve democracy." He also reported that the government has promised a referendum on a new, more democratic, Egyptian constitution within two months.
Mr. Ghonim, a regional marketing executive for Google, started the Facebook page to document the brutal police murder of Mr. Said in Alexandria last year that became a focal point for the online activism that contributed to the revolution.
In his post today, he made no mention of Friday protests and appeared to be putting his faith in the military. “I trust the Egyptian Army,” wrote Ghonim, who had no experience in politics or activism until the events of the past few months.
But other activists, some of whom have been protesting for democratic reform in Egypt for almost a decade, are less sanguine, indicating emerging splits in the surprisingly unified and leaderless coalition that dumped Mubarak from office after nearly 30 years in power.
“Mubarak is gone and so is [former intelligence chief and vice president Omar] Suleiman,” says a socialist activist who asked not to be identified. “But the military has been at the top of the system for 60 years. I can’t trust them.”
Enough momentum to pressure military?
Mark Levine, a historian of the Middle East at the University of California-Irvine who spent the past week in Cairo, says he expects the protesters to be able to hold together enough to keep the junta moving towards democracy.
“History tells us that militaries rarely give up political power on their own,” he says. “But these kids aren’t stupid, they’ve been living with [military-tinged rule] all their lives. If the Army starts to act like a traditional military junta and cracks down, will they be able to mobilize people fast again or are they exhausted? I have a feeling they’re not exhausted.”
He says a key element in the coming weeks will be with the labor strikes, and whether they start to coalesce into a united front to push economic demands – something that could be deeply threatening to the military, with its vast away of factories and secure management jobs for former officers running them.
“What’s happening with labor, that’s the key," he says. "It’s the economics.”