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Egyptian uprising: Redux or reflux?

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23 November 2011 15:01

The violence of recent days in Cairo's Tahrir square and in other major Egyptian cities has raised the possibility of a repeat of January/February this year, when protests forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. This time the protesters have Egypt's transitional rulers, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in their sights, insisting that they will not stop the protests until the SCAF hands power to a civilian transitional administration.

To understand where this might go you have understand where the pressure on the SCAF is coming from. 

On one side is the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. They expect to win big in the parliamentary election due to start next week, which would give them a major say in the writing of Egypt's new constitution. But after being quite cosy with the SCAF in the first months after Mubarak's departure (too cosy in the view of some), they now fear that the SCAF is trying to limit any new power they gain.  

Last Friday the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups took to the streets, ostensibly to protest the SCAF's moves to impose a set of supra-constitutional principles that would limit civilian control of the military and enshrine the latter's ability to intervene in politics. But they quickly lost control of the protest to the second and more vehement source of opposition to the SCAF: namely, the amorphous revolutionary youth who were at the forefront of the 25 January uprising and whose patience with the SCAF's transitional rule has been running out quickly ever since. 

These individuals and groups have borne the brunt of the military's heavy-handedness in recent months (as detailed in this Amnesty report) and have now turned the Islamists' initial protests into a head-on clash with the SCAF (fueled by yet more heavy-handedness by the security forces).  Predictably, the Brotherhood's leadership has now backed away from supporting the protests it initially led, out of fear that the SCAF will use the violence as a pretext to cancel the elections or for a wider security crackdown.

Between and around these two opposition groups is the rest of the political spectrum. Some liberal and secular forces privately back the SCAF's effort to provide guarantees against what they see as growing Islamist political power. Others fear that the SCAFs foot-dragging over the transition period (for example, pushing back new presidential elections to the end of next year or even 2013) is a sign that the military is not as uninterested as it claims to be about staying in power. Beyond this there is the silent majority, who oscillate between sympathy for the protesters, especially when they are treated harshly, and a desire for a return to stability, security and economic activity.

Against this background, are we seeing yet more, albeit extremely serious, revolutionary indigestion or uprising 2.0? 

My gut tells me it is the former. The military will be wary of launching a more brutal crackdown for fear of losing the support of the wider population. The Brotherhood leadership's cautious instinct will be to avoid any sustained confrontation with the SCAF, although at a further cost to its credibility even among its own members. And while the revolutionary youth will not be easily placated — underlined by their rapid dismissal of Tantawi's decision to bring forward presidential elections to the middle of 2012 – they also risk losing broader societal support if they are seen to be too uncompromising, which would in turn help the military justify a crackdown.

But even if the revolutionary youth succeed in forcing the SCAF to establish a new civilian-led transitional administration – or even if they force Tantawi himself to resign – they cannot simply make the military as an institution, its interests and influence, disappear overnight. The military will continue to shape Egypt's transition whether in the form of the SCAF or less obviously behind the scenes. 

Indeed, the tragedy here is that both the protesters and the SCAF seem to have lost touch with this reality. Establishing civilian control of the military is probably going to be a very gradual process that will rely in large part on the military's willingness to cede such control. But equally, as Issandr el-Amrani has argued, there was no need for the SCAF to make its power and prerogatives so explicit, through supra-constitutional principals and other measures, when everybody pretty much understood its power and its red lines already.

Photo by Flickr user lilianwagdy.

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