Some reflections on today's events in Tahrir

It didn’t have to be this way. On Friday, a large peaceful protest was held against the military’s attempt to impose itself into Egypt’s future constitution. The generals had tried to ensure that the military budget would be above parliamentary scrutiny and other measures. The funny thing is that it was tacitly understood for a while now that the military would remain powerful in the background. But they had to put the issue on the table, and therefore make it a public contestation point.

Most participants in Friday’s protests left that same evening, and a few stayed overnight. By the next day only a few dozen protestors who wanted to reoccupy Tahrir remained. The police was sent to clear them, using excessive violence and firing rubber bullets into the heads of protestors, killing at least two and blinding several in one eye. The protests escalated as a result, and after an attempt to take back the square in the early morning, there were many more protestors this morning (Sunday) than the previous one. The attempt to dislodge them during the day, culminating in a combined army-police assault at around 5pm — apparently to clear the tents that had appeared in the square’s central island — will probably only draw more people. Once again, the SCAF’s and interior ministry’s decisions have probably landed them in more trouble.

A lot of the speculation after today’s events on Tahrir is that it may all be part of a plot to postpone elections. Friday was a major show of Islamist force, and it is likely that an Islamist-led parliament would choose to confront the SCAF early on ending the transition period and electing a president (as well as introduce various legislation). But it’s equally plausible that things simply got of hand, that the SCAF does not know how to handle this situation, and is really looking for help from political forces on this one. And that it may panic, decide force is the only solution, and impose an even harsher form of martial law (everyone is already expecting curfew tonight).

Can there be a political solution out of this crisis? And what do the protestors want, anyway? For some, it’s about securing a deadline for the transition to a civilian government and president by April 2012. Others want this transition now. It’s hard to underestimate the extent to which the SCAF has squandered the trust that many Egyptians expressed in the army last February. Many want it to be out of power as soon as possible. Elections are not figuring high in the protestors’ demands, and indeed in places some were tearing posters from the walls saying that now is not the time for partisan politics.

As I’ve written several times (see this recent piece in The National the only productive way to postpone these very badly prepared elections is if a national unity government is formed that effectively takes over from the SCAF is directing the transition. Something similar has recently been proposed by some political actors, and could be adapted to the new situation.

The biggest obstacle to this right now — aside from the SCAF which probably can’t imagine making such a concession and still backing elections in a week — is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party opposes any postponment of elections they stand to do well in. Liberals may have suspended their campaign, but the Brothers (and others) sure aren’t. For them to agree to postpone the elections at this point would necessitate an escalation in the crisis and a real breakthrough for the idea of a civilian transitional council. It may yet come if this violence continues.

One problem is that while SCAF’s leadership has been abominable, party leaders have not really been shining either. Different political factions don’t really talk to each other, and view each move suspiciously. We may see some reasoned proposals tonight from two figures who seem more likely to reconcilite the liberal-Islamist divide: Mohammed ElBaradei and AbdelMoneim AboulFotouh, who will appear tonight on Mona Shazli’s political talk show. One thing is certain: apart from a few parties and movements, most are being scathing about SCAF. The others are carefully staying on the sidelines and seeing which way things will go — and how they can get an advantage against their political opponents.

It may seem far-fetched now, but there could be an alternative (other than the one entertained by some activists that younger army officers will overthrow the SCAF.) It would involve one or more strong, respected personalities, backed by political forces, forming a national unity government that takes all or most responsibilities from the SCAF. It would mean a strong, independent, respected prime minister and a interior minister who comes from civil society and will start reform (which hasn’t happened in nine months) immediately. Implicit will be that no foreign policy adventurism or radical new domestic policies would be carried out. The priority would be electing a constituent assembly, and then a new parliament and a president (there would be no interim president). A constituent assembly could be elected by the end of the year, if not directly then by being approved by referendum (from a representative range of appointed political and civil society actors).

At this point, there has to be some outside the box thinking and willingness to stand up to SCAF from the political class. The revolution — or a return to social peace and stability — cannot continue (as so many seem to want) without leadership. January 25 may have begun as a diffuse, leaderless protest, but November 19 shows that there are times you need inspirational leadership. If SCAF can’t provide it, who will?

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.