Egypt’s Paralyzed Revolution

Anti-SCAF graffiti in Cairo

Crashing into protesters with military vehicles, shooting them by live bullets, targeting women, and accusing activists of being a fifth column for a subversive foreign agenda, are just some of the missteps taken by Egypt’s military leaders over the last three months. Pushed to the brink by embarrassing anti-military protests, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is now unleashing its anger in a violent show of force against revolutionary activists. The latest crackdown in Cairo, which killed at least 17 people and left hundreds wounded, is part of a broader campaign to shape the trajectory of the revolution in ways that protect the military’s interests while isolating and delegitimizing the demands of protesters. 

As the one-year anniversary of the January 25 revolution approaches, the pride and optimism expressed by protesters in the early days of the uprising has long since given way to frustration, as they watch the dream of a democratic and free country dissolve into a violent and humiliating nightmare. Much of the Egyptian public has grown impatient with continued protests in Tahrir, which are not helping to reverse the economic downturn or restore security. Meanwhile, protest groups and political elites are wary of the SCAF’s reluctance to relinquish power to civilians, and have lost confidence in the military’s ability to effectively manage the political transition.  

The current paralysis of Egypt’s revolution can be traced to the premature departure of protesters from Tahrir Square, before their demands were fully implemented. They were too quick to delegate authority over the transition to the SCAF. As an extension of the former regime, it is not surprising that the SCAF has constructed a roadmap for the transition that is more reflective of an authoritarian status quo than of the demands of protesters. And it is clear to the crowd in Tahrir Square that the military’s chosen path does not lead to the democratic destination they are seeking. But turning back or changing course midway seems just as difficult as continuing to the end of this treacherous and windy road. 

It is remarkable that a sustained series of anti-military protests is taking place against the backdrop of reasonably free and fair elections, which will continue for another four months. Ironically, voters are showing strong support for the Islamist parties, which have been conspicuously absent from the most recent demonstrations. 

The SCAF’s mishandling of the crowd in Kasr Al-Aini Street last week – in which 17 protesters were killed and more than 600 were injured – has given rise to demands for legal accountability at the highest levels of the military leadership.

In the early days of the transition, many were willing to give the SCAF the benefit of the doubt, wanting to believe that the emerging pattern of bad policy-making was due to political ineptitude, not malicious intent. But by now, political forces are almost universally convinced that the SCAF is up to no good. Not only is the military accused of perpetrating human rights violations, but there are strong suspicions that that the SCAF deliberately set fire to government buildings as a pretext for smearing protesters as dangerous vandals.

The SCAF’s transparent propaganda campaign to isolate and delegitimize activists is neither convincing nor professional. The press has published testimony from “witnesses” – some of them children – who were coerced into testifying against some activists and falsely confessing that they were bribed into attacking soldiers. Egyptian media later exposed these video testimonies as a manufactured fraud, revealing that the so-called “witnesses” were not protesters but criminals who had been arrested a week before the demonstrations they were accused of participating in.

After every wave of protests, the call for expediting a transfer of power to civilian leaders becomes louder and more urgent. There are several different proposals for implementing this power transfer including temporarily delegating presidential powers to the speaker of the People’s Assembly and holding an early presidential election in January 2012. But all of these initiatives have been flatly rejected by the SCAF. Meanwhile, the powerful Islamist parties have come out against moving up the date of the presidential election (currently slated for June) and show signs of repairing their former alliance with the military.

Forcing the SCAF to hand over power will be even more difficult than ousting former president Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, like Bashar Al-Assad, was the figurehead of a authoritarian regime with an entrenched network of local, regional, and international interests. The military’s decision to side with the people against Mubarak was actually the result of a secondary coup – Mubarak’s attempt to assert absolute power over the system by delegating power to his son, Gamal. The prospect of hereditary succession to a civilian was a slap in the face to Egypt’s armed forces and the legacy of the 1952 military coup, provoking the military to withdraw support from Mubarak. 

As hostility and mistrust of the military continues to escalate, all signs suggest that the anniversary of the original “million-man” demonstration will be marked by another massive protest. But the solution will not be as simple as ousting the aging Mubarak and his unpopular son. The lack of unity around political initiatives to facilitate a power transfer to civilians is a major hurdle to the success of the transition. Furthermore, the Islamists parties have already rejected many of these proposals and will have the power to veto them in the new parliament.  

It’s clear that Egypt’s transition has taken a turn for the worse under the SCAF’s leadership, but bringing an end to military rule won’t resolve deeper conflicts over the structure of Egypt’s political system and the nature of the new constitution, which will need to be fought out by fragmenting and opposing political forces in the new parliament. The SCAF’s twisted political roadmap has already set the stage for a collision, and whether or not the military succeeds in clinging to power, the road ahead is guaranteed to be a rocky one. 

Magdy Samaan is a freelance journalist and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute. Mr. Samaan has previously worked as a correspondent for the Egyptian independent newspapers Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry al-Youm as well as Al Jazeera, reporting on politics, religious minorities, and US-Egypt relations.

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera


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