Egypt political chaos threatening to foment actual chaos

Clashes between gunmen and protesters near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense in Cairo have left at least 11 dead in the past 24 hours, inflaming an already tense and uncertain political transition.

Protesters clash with a Egyptian military solider outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo, Wednesday, May 2.

The steady unraveling of Egypt's "transition process" continued today, with clashes outside the Ministry of Defense as thugs armed with guns and knives sparked a melee that left at least 11 people dead and dozens injured.

A small group of Islamist protesters demanding the reinstatement of salafi sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail into the presidential race were attacked by a group of armed young men in civilian dress, according to reporters on the scene. Despite the fighting occurring so close to the defense ministry, no major effort to provide security was evident. 

Egypt's transition has been run by a military junta, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), since Hosni Mubarak was pushed from office in February 2011. The next step to returning to some semblance of normalcy are presidential elections scheduled to begin in just three weeks.

But every other step leading up to this point has gone badly wrong.

A new constitution has not been written, as originally hoped, meaning the Mubarak-era document, which concentrated all real power in the hands of the president, remains in force. The elected parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, has walked off the job, demanding that the government ministers appointed by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi be replaced. A team of Mubarak-era judges are now considering a recommendation that they declare the parliamentary election unconstitutional, an act that would dissolve parliament and probably lead to mass street protests from Islamists. And two of the most popular candidates for the presidency have been disqualified. 

Those two are Abu Ismail and Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater. Ismail, a popular salafi preacher who favors the imposition of Saudi-style Islam on Egypt, was earlier disqualified because his deceased mother was said to be a US citizen. Mr. Shater, a key Muslim Brotherhood strategist, was disqualified because of Mubarak-era convictions related to his political activities.

The deaths in Cairo overnight and in the morning, which came during hours of fighting, are just the latest evidence to activists, both Islamists and the secular-minded protesters who fueled the uprising against Mubarak last year, that the generals running Egypt and the institutions they control are not to be trusted. The electoral commission overseeing the presidential election answers to SCAF, and many Egyptians are convinced that political machinations are as important to the actions of the judiciary as points of law.

The use of unarmed thugs, or baltigaya, was frequent under Mubarak, a tactic to throw the thinnest veneer of deniability over government decisions to crack heads in the street. The protesters are convinced that was what happened in the clashes today. Perhaps they're wrong. It could be the mob was sent by a political rival of the salafis. But that would, in some ways, be even more unsettling, since it would mark the spread of the use of violence as a key tool of Egyptian politics.

Leading presidential candidates Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood member, and Mohammed Mursi, the Brotherhood's choice now that Shater has been thrown out, criticized SCAF for allowing this mornings violence. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the salafis main party, Al Nour, announced they were boycotting a meeting scheduled with Tantawi today in protest. The FJP holds about 50 percent of parliament, while Al Nour has roughly 20 percent.

Egypt's presidential election is supposed to start May 23. But the road between now and then is fraught with dangers. On May 6, a constitutional court is scheduled to rule on the legality of the parliamentary elections that finished earlier this year. Another court already disqualified the body that Parliament had set up to try to write a new constitution, enraging Islamists who said the legitimate flow of power from the ballot box was being thwarted. Tossing the Parliament out entirely would probably push that rage into overdrive.

And with the failure to provide security today for what was, after all, a small protest by recent Cairo standards, raises questions about how safe and secure the first round of the presidential elections can be, with the stakes high, the temptations to intimidate voters barely restrained by the military or police.

Egypt, if wisdom isn't shown by the men in power in the days ahead, could turn 2012 from the year in which the gains of the revolution was supposed to be ratified into the year when a long, chaotic period of street power, protest and counter protest, began.

At the moment, the institutions meant to channel popular aspirations don't appear to be working very well.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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