Column: The shift away from Tahrir

My latest column for The National, which appeared yesterday, about the events of the last week:

Pandemonium ruled Cairo's centre last week - entire streets were covered in upturned stones, large clouds of acrid tear gas hung in the air, and protesters' chants and drumbeats echoed day and night.

The fighting didn't really stop until after the army was able to make use of a truce to build a wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire, to separate protesters and police. But this has not resolved the crisis. A new spark could rekindle fighting at any time.

The events of recent days are more complicated than the dramatic tale we are told by television news. It is not just about valiant democracy activists versus ageing autocratic generals; not just about Tahrir Square's new Egypt against Hosni Mubarak's old Egypt - though that is part of the story.

It is also about the failure of the political class and about the old regime having created lasting problems that cannot be resolved by well-meaning demonstrators. And it is about a state, which employs millions, fighting to maintain itself.

"Tahrir is not Egypt," the generals argue, and they are right. As much as we may sympathise with the hundreds of thousands who descend into the streets, we cannot say they represent all of a country of 85 million. Likewise, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), with its 20 or so generals, is not Egypt either.

Read the rest here, where I predict the elections will move attention away from Tahrir and towards parliament.

Chart: Who stands where in Egypt, v2

Click to enlargeI've updated my chart from a few days ago to reflect the narrowing of possible positions (from 5 to 3) and the leftward drift of most parties and personalities. At this point, of the major parties only the Muslim Brothers and al-Wafd are not officially backing the protests as far as I can tell. As always, comments, corrections and feedback appreciated. This chart does not show positions on elections — again, for now no party has called for their cancellation (although some revolutionary groups and Mohamed ElBaradei are suggesting an alternative transition plan) and the idea of postponment has only been floated.  

NYC protest in solidarity with Egypt

There will be a march to the Egyptian consulate in New York tomorrow to protest this week's violence in Egypt. Details after the jump.

 

Stop Sales of Tear Gas to the Egyptian Military!

End All US Military Aid to SCAF!

Picket at Point Capital Lookout, Majority Stockholder of

 Tear Gas Manufacturer Combined Systems, Inc.

Friday, November 25th

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Poll suggests Egyptian disillusionment with military was mounting

Via the Atlantic Council's Egypt's page, a Brookings poll carried in October showed that 43% of Egyptians believe the military was working to reverse the goals of the revolution. This suggests that the supposed silent majority that backs SCAF is much smaller than we think — just think how much those numbers must have changed in the last month alone, even before the current crisis. This suggests that the time is ripe for a major push against SCAF — and that it's been the political leaders, not the people, who have been trailing behind.

Chart: Who stands where in Egypt

Click to enlargeAbove is a very, very approximate reading of various political actors position on the current crisis. It is based on the following assumptions:

  • The question of postponing elections is not particularly important to any actor — some are intent on holding them now, but very few have urged postponing them. We can either assume it's not a priority issue (apart from those who insist they take place) or people want them to go ahead.
  • SCAF has conceded on transition to civilian rule by next July and the formation of a new government. The real difference is (1) between those who insist on a firm date for the transition and (2) those who want a NUG now, want a NUG after election or want a not just a new government, but the transfer of SCAF's powers to this government. 

I am putting this up hoping for corrections, feedback, fine-tuning, etc. Let me know in the comments. Of course this chart is impressionistic and I am aware of divergences within the Egyptian Bloc, etc.

For reference on who's who, take a look at our chart of players in the elections (I've only included major coalitions and parties) and this list of Egyptian presidential candidates.

Video: "People have this thing called a remote control"

A wonderful appearance on Egyptian TV by my friend Ezzedine Shukri-Fishere, in which he pulls out a remote control out of his pocket and proceeds to explain that every one has one of these in their house and can switch the channel from State TV. He then says enough with accusations of foreign hands, spies and agitation, there are tactics from the 20th century and we are in the 21st. The presenter is quite defensive. He goes in to say State TV must be the television of the Egyptian people, not that of the Interior Ministry or SCAF.

Although State TV continues to be fairly bad, especially with the call-ins, I have to say it has improved tremendously even since Maspero last month. It may be partly because of rumored rebellions by its employees. And there’s still much, much room for improvement.

Egyptian rights groups call for indictment of senior police and military officials

This is a major taboo being broken, with the call of for the indictment of the head of the Central Command, General Ruweini (considered third most powerful person on SCAF) and the head of the military police:

Five human rights organizations said today that the past three days' brutal attacks on demonstrators, carried out by the Interior Ministry's security forces and military police forces under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailiya, Assyut, and other cities, constitute criminal offences. These offences are without a statute of limitations and the perpetrators and instigators must be brought before criminal trials.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, El-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information pledged to continue to identify the civilian and military officials involved in killing demonstrators, bursting their eyes and breaking their bones and skulls. These crimes have been extensively documented by these organizations and by the media over the past few days.

The signatory organizations stated that the list of officials it plans to prosecute so far includes: General Mansour al-Essawi, Minister of the Interior; General Sami Sidhom, Assistant Interior Minister for the Security Sector; General Emad al-Din al-Wakil, Assistant Interior Minister for the Central Security Forces; General Hamdy Badeen, head of the military police; and General Hasan al-Ruwaini, commander of the central military district. This is in addition to other civilian and military officials in a number of other cities which have seen similar criminal offences against demonstrators.

Here's the full press release.

Sacrifice

(This image circulated online. The lion statue is one of a pair that stand on either side of the Kasr El Nil bridge)

One of the effects of the police's policy of shooting directly at protesters' heads in the last 3 days has been that many of them have lost an eye.

Ahmad Harara, a dentist, lost one eye on January 28 and one three days ago, on November 19.

Over 11,000 people were injured (and 800 killed) during the January 25th uprising, and no one, to this date, has been held responsible. It's this combination of brutality and impunity that has brought people back to the streets.

And protesters are devising ways to protect themselves. Some have industrial-style goggles. Others are sharing ingenious ways to make home-made visors.

Just another indication (as if one was needed) of the extraordinary resolve of Egyptians to see their revolution through.

Video: Tahrir 2011-11-22

A stroll around Tahrir Square as thousands more join the protest, now in its third day.

 

I know these videos are a little surreal. I just take the camera with me where I go, film and then edit a bit when I get back home. I put them up to capture a little of the mood. I did not go all the way to the end of Mohammed Mahmoud St. at the end of the video, when it's hard to see what's happening. I like having both of my eyes.

Notes from Tahrir, 2011-11-22

✪ I walked around Tahrir Square tonight. Tons more people. A bizarre mixture of a carnival atmosphere and intensity. Fighting continues down Mohammed Mahmoud St. non-stop, with new frontline protestors replacing every wounded person coming out. The slogans are simple: they are all against SCAF, for a civilian government, and against Tantawi.

✪ Since yesterday evening there has been no new raid on the Square. Yesterday’s raid was aimed at destroying the encampment — troops withdrew afterwards. It’s simply not true protestors “retook” the square, they were allowed to return. The police today is holding Mohammed Mahmoud St., which leads to the Interior Ministry. Their numbers are few and they are simply holding a line. The situation is static, because while protestors may be wearing down units, these are being rotated. It’s not like January 28 when it was a full-blown war across the city. The army can of course take the square back (with huge casualties). But they have not decided to do so yet, either because they’re afraid of what will happen, or because of pressure, or because the present situation suits them. I doubt the latter: I’m betting that they don’t know what to do.

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Podcast: Back to Tahrir

After the last two days' exceptional events in Tahrir Square, Egypt seems to teeter on the brink of another revolution or political chaos. We discuss the recent violence and the scenarios the country faces: more violence and authoritarianism from SCAF, or a new political direction for the transition. Or will Egypt judt muddle through again — if it can?

Podcast #18