The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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.

✪ The situation in Alexandria appears to have really escalated. This is no longer just about Tahrir. The loss of Egyptian Current Party (offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood) member Bahei Eddin al-Senoussi, a major activist in Alexandria, has galvanized people there. Follow Rawya Ragei’s reporting for al-Jazeera English on this.

✪ The resignation of Essam Sharaf’s cabinet does not seem to have moved the protest movement. The SCAF is said to be negotiating its replacement with political forces, but here they must be treading carefully: if they join in a national unity cabinet, can they be assured that the protestors in Tahrir will accept? They now risk discrediting themselves in doing so. They have to be sure they can sell it to the public, and that means a hard sell. Meanwhile, the best presidential candidates (ElBaradei and Aboul Fotouh) are scathing about SCAF but offer different ways to get to a national unity government. And the most populist one, Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, has called for more protestors to come down onto the streets. But he still wants elections, and his criticism of SCAF is partly put as a threat.

✪ The Wafd party (pro-SCAF) and the MB (critical but ambiguous) have come out in favor of going ahead with the elections. Others, like the Egyptian Liberals, are beginning to warn that elections cannot be held.

✪ Today’s announcement that members of the former ruling party will be banned from the elections may be an attempt to quell public anger. But it’s also a bit besides the point, and introduced new complications for the elections: who will be removed from the ballots (and do they have to be reprinted)? This could cause unrest of its own by people who wanted to run and who now cannot even get their relatives to do so because candidate registration has closed. It might be a big deal in the countryside.

✪ Anyone reading this site knows I thought even before the current crisis that the upcoming elections, because they were so poorly prepared, were a disaster. You can’t build a new political system on bad foundations. This is only more the case now, but elections are only worth postponing if you have a real civilian executive authority that takes over most of the SCAF’s duties. Remember the military and police are supposed to secure elections, but who trusts them now?

For a dissenting view on the elections issue, see Shadi Hamid’s piece, Don’t Postpone Egypt’s Elections, in which he writes:

All the major political forces have more or less concluded that a transfer of power to civilian leadership is necessary and urgent. The irony is that if the military does what some (not all) protesters want – delay the elections – it could very well spell a continued deterioration in the country’s stability. If the military does what most protesters want – fire the prime minister and appoint a new government – it could end up imperiling what little momentum Egypt’s transition has left. A new government, with a new mandate and riding a wave of optimism, may find itself tempted to postpone elections.

I still don’t buy it — what stability? Admiteddly Shadi wrote his piece before the PM was fired, so we’re already down the path he described. But I still think the momentum of the transition was in the wrong direction.

✪ Another view on the elections from a spokesperson for the Muslim Brothers, who advances a conspiracy theory:

Himdan also alleged that the SCAF and Interior Ministry security forces are specifically planning their tactics to provoke Egyptians into an angry reaction that will delay elections:

“The current tactics employed … have been to fluctuate the people in Tahrir Square, evacuate an area, draw back, allow more people to go in,” he said. “They have allowed videos to be posted, even among police forces … it’s the type of provocation to entice more people … into Tahrir Square, and we believe that this entire process is a way to undermine the democratic transition.”

This might be partly because the MB thinks these elections will be good for them. The question of elections (which many protestors, unlike party members, don’t care about) has come to this: have them to hurry the current transition, or postpone them to do them properly under an entirely different transition plan where SCAF is much less powerful. The Brotherhood, in this calculus, will have to look at the big picture — as it changes by the hour.

✪ What’s up with the US making the elections taking place so central? I mean I know it’s where things have to go if SCAF doesn’t move aside (still way too early days for that). But the focus should be on the need for better political leadership and an end to violence.

✪ Speaking of the elections, here is a press release by the Carter Center on steps that should be taken to improve the electoral environment that was just released.

✪ Picking up April 6’s claim that SCAF is “Mubarak’s mask”, Ganzeer offers the following illustration:

It’s funny that behind the Tantawi and Mubarak mask, he depicts Omar Suleiman, the long-serving chief of General Intelligence, Egypt’s CIA. There is increasing discussion these days of General Intelligence running the show to some extent, and perhaps engaging in deliberate destabilization. It is also widely believed that SCAF has been brainwashed by their reports on the revolution being some foreign creation.

✪ Eric Knecht looks at today’s headlines (with pics) and finds huge differences, as always, between the state press and the private press. As always. My own tally of today’s headlines:

Government press:

  • al-Ahram: Worsening clashes between security protestors
  • al-Akhbar: Launch of a war on Tahrir Square
  • al-Gomhouriya: Clashes on Tahrir Square: Egypt calls on the wise to intervene
  • Rose al-Youssef: Protestors demand a presidential council et continue clashes with police

Private press:

  • al-Alam al-Youm (business daily): Egypt’s stock market lost LE7.1bn yesterday because of Saturday’s events
  • al-Masri al-Youm: Victory of protestors against al-Qubba [SCAF HQ]
  • al-Shorouk: Angry protestors continue clashes against police and army
  • al-Youm al-Seba3: Egypt returns to square one
  • al-Tahrir: Heroic struggle continues in Tahrir
  • al-Wafd: Egypt on top of a volcano
  • al-Destour: Will martial law be enacted in Egypt?

In passing, while state TV continues to be bad, it is less bad than one might expect. I wonder if recent reports of an internal rebellion is changing things.

✪ What if turns into a general strike? A few days before the fall of Mubarak it looked that way. Labor activists believe that was crucial to the army’s decision to take over. No doubt they might be working in that direction again — as our friend Hossam el-Hamalawy is.

Thanassis Cambanis is to the point:

The spasm of state violence here over the weekend marks one of two things: either an entrenchment of military dictatorship, or the long-deferred resumption of the January 25 uprising.