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Back to Tahrir Square

by ESAM AL-AMIN

When former Vice President (and intelligence chief) Omar Suleiman announced on state television last February 11the transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), millions of Egyptians began celebrating in the streets the culmination of their revolution that rid them of their dictator. The demonstrators’ chant then was “the people and the army are one.” Indeed, the role of SCAF in refusing to crack down on protestors and forcing the resignation of Mubarak proved decisive in the three-week revolt.

Nine months later, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are back in Tahrir Square and streets across the country. Ironically, their chant is now “The police and the army are one,” in a clear rejection of the violent tactics employed by the police against the demonstrators. In three days of confrontation since November 20 at least forty people were killed and more than 2,000 injured at the hands of the security forces. But this time the Egyptian youth will not pack up and go home. They are determined to reclaim their revolution and force the transfer of power from the military to a real civilian government.

But how did we get from there to here?

Shortly after Mubarak was deposed, SCAF promised to stay in power no longer than six months. It subsequently called for a popular referendum on March 19 that called for parliamentary elections, followed by writing a new constitution, and then presidential elections. Championed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other Islamic factions, the public approved the referendum with an overwhelming majority of 77 per cent, although secular parties wanted to first draft the constitution for the fear that Islamic parties would have an edge over them after the elections.

During this brief campaign it became clear to all political trends that the Islamically oriented parties, led by the MB, are better organized, well financed, and have the abilities and skills to mobilize the public to their cause. This fact prompted fear and panic not only from the secular, leftist, and liberal parties within Egypt but also from other Western powers led by the United States.

Furthermore, the traditional secular and liberal parties expressed their concern that if the elections were held soon, the Islamists were poised to win a large share of seats and dictate a new constitution that might curtail some freedoms or favor the application of Islamic laws. Despite the pronouncement by most Islamic parties, including the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the MB, that the constitution writing committee would include all political parties and trends, most secular parties did not believe such assurances.

Throughout the summer most secular and liberal parties pressured SCAF to issue a decree that would impose supra-constitutional principles and thus foist them on the future parliament. The opponents of this argued that, on its face, this practice is undemocratic, usurps the rights of the people, and tramples upon their right to express their free will. They also argue that it is unnecessary since all parties have agreed on the nature of the state, namely to be a democratic and civil one.

Nevertheless, the proponents of this approach pushed hard to impose their vision. Consequently, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Silmi, backed by SCAF, called for a conference of all political parties to approve his plan for the future constitution. But remarkably this document also called for a special constitutional privilege for the military, effectively according it a sovereign status. In effect, it called for its budget to be outside the purview of parliament and for a veto power over any strategic decision by the government. In short, it was similar to the role that the Turkish military played in the country since the military coup of 1960 until Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was elected in 2002.

The rejection of Al-Silmi’s proposed document was swift and sweeping not only in principle by the Islamic parties, but also from other nationalist and secular parties because of its tilt towards the military. It was a disguised effort to keep the military outside the control and supervision of the future democratic institutions of the state.

But this was the latest episode of SCAF’s many attempts to manipulate the future course of Egypt. Since the very beginning it has been laggard in implementing the objectives of the revolution. The despised emergency laws were never repealed. While changing the name of the security apparatus, much of its senior personnel and tactics were retained. Over 12,000 civilians were charged and tried swiftly in military trials facing harsh sentences, while the most corrupt leaders of the Mubarak regime – including the deposed president and his sons- have been tried grudgingly in slow civilian courts.

Moreover, none of the reforms announced by SCAF came out of its own initiative. It either reluctantly adhered to final court rulings by the judiciary, or yielded to the demands of the people, built up over many weeks, eventually culminating in large demonstrations and sit-ins. To wit:

The sacking of Mubarak’s cabinet in favor of a new government supported by the people. The banning of Mubarak’s corrupt party and confiscating its assets. The dismissal of thousands of corrupt officials from local councils. The trial of senior leaders and ministers of the deposed regime. The opening of the Rafah crossing to ease the blockade on Gaza. Setting definite election dates after many delays. Changing elections laws to include parties’ list as well as individual candidates. Allowing expatriate citizens to vote outside of Egypt. Pointedly, none of these demands, as well as many others, were met without taking the matter to the streets. Often times, their decisions were too little too late, or with ineffective or inconsequential results.

For instance, all political parties have been calling for the activation of a law that bans from politics all individuals who were previously engaged in political corruption- effectively excluding all Mubarak’s Nationalist Democratic Party (NDP) officials. But SCAF dragged its feet for months while hundreds of those same NDP officials filed to contest the elections next week either as independents or as part of the lists of six new parties tied to the old regime. Ultimately, this past Monday, just one week before the elections, SCAF issued the Political Corruption Law that would make it almost impossible to impeach any candidate since they have to be disqualified only through the slow Egyptian judiciary.

Meanwhile, SCAF has been vulnerable to the tremendous pressures applied by foreign governments for different motives. Some Arab governments led by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. used their financial leverage to bail out the deposed president by halting or slowing down his trial because of their strong ties to him. In addition, the U.S. and other Western countries insisted that SCAF give specific assurances regarding Western and Israeli interests, as well as secure certain concessions from the political Islamic parties. For example, under U.S. prodding, SCAF demanded and received assurance from the MB in late April that the group would not contest  future presidential elections.

By June, SCAF was demanding that the group not advance one of its own to the position of Prime Minister, even if it won the elections. In August, the MB was told yet again that in any future government it should not push for senior posts such as foreign or interior ministries so as not to antagonize the West. While the group reluctantly agreed not to contest the posts of head of state or government, it was extremely dismayed and refused to adhere to further restrictions on its participation in politics.

Last July, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee earmarked $1.55 billion to Egypt on the condition that such aid should in part be used for “border security programs and activities in the Sinai” in order to insure Israel’s security concerns. It also directed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies the humiliating demand that the Government of Egypt (supposedly democratically elected) “is not controlled by a foreign terrorist organization, or its affiliates or supporters, is implementing the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, and is taking steps to detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza strip.” Thus, when the Egyptian authorities acceded in late May to the demand by the Egyptian public to open the Rafah crossing and ease the blockade on Gaza, the crossing was closed again within just three days, due to U.S. and Israeli pressure. The status of the Rafah crossing is not currently very different from the Mubarak era.

By late September, SCAF finally set the parliamentary elections date for November 28. But it called for a staggered elections process to be implemented over three stages for the lower house as well as two stages for the upper house, effectively ending the elections process in March 2012. Many political parties and pro-democracy movements voiced their concerns that within such a system (with the banning of international elections monitors), the elections could be manipulated, especially when the same interior ministry (packed by Mubarak’s appointees) would supervise major parts of the electoral process.

To secure free and fair elections, SCAF started tacitly requesting  concessions from the major political parties, especially the MB and other Islamically oriented parties. In return for their support of Al-Silmi’s supra-constitutional principles, SCAF pledged to guarantee free and fair parliamentary elections. But the MB and other Salafist parties refused even to show up to discuss the document. Meanwhile, other pro-democracy liberal and youth groups were extremely concerned about the extra constitutional powers given to the military in that document. Fearing the attempted power grab, most political parties and movements were actually united in their rejection, and called for a million-man demonstration in Tahrir square on Friday, November 18, insisting on the restoration of the objectives of the revolution. Recalling the early days of the revolution, hundreds of thousands of people gathered that afternoon not only in Tahrir, but also in other major cities including Alexandria, Suez, and across the Nile Delta.

After the impressive showing by all political factions: Islamic, secular, liberal, leftist, and youth groups, SCAF had no option but to withdraw the document. By Saturday, a few thousand activists from the youth movements that actually ignited the revolution last January, decided to stay in Tahrir square and stage a sit-in to demand the dismissal of the ineffective SCAF-controlled government, headed by Dr. Esam Sharaf since March, and call for the end of military rule.

That evening, for reasons that remain unclear, the security forces decided to evacuate the few thousand demonstrators by force. In doing so, they employed all the Mubarak-era tactics: teargas, rubber bullets, clubs, beatings, mass arrests, pepper spray, and physical and verbal humiliations. But the demonstrators refused to evacuate, fought back, and called for reinforcements after suffering many casualties. Within hours, Tahrir was again filled with tens of thousands of people raising their demands yet again.

If there was a lesson to be learned from the ousting of Mubarak, it was that when the people’s demands are denied, the ceiling of their demands are raised. By the third day of this manufactured confrontation, most political groups, with the exception of the MB, were not only protesting in Tahrir Square, but also across Egypt. The angry demonstrators now demanded the complete dismissal of the government, and the ouster of the military council to be replaced with an interim civilian presidential council.

The MB announced that although it supported the demands of the people it would not participate so as not to escalate the dangerous situation with the security forces. In its pragmatic calculation, the MB saw this latest episode as a deliberate attempt by the military to use the induced violence to postpone yet again the elections, which many believed the party would win. Similar to the agreement the MB struck with Suleiman in the days before Mubarak’s ouster, once again the MB thought of its immediate gains rather than the national consensus to force the end of military rule. As it reversed its decision last February within two days due to pressure from the streets, many of its members and supporters in the streets are openly demanding that they participate alongside the other young revolutionaries.

By Tuesday, November 22, SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Chief-of-Staff Gen. Sami Anan, met with all political parties and prospective presidential candidates. After a five-hour marathon meeting, SCAF capitulated, and agreed to all the demands: To declare an immediate cease-fire; to release thousands of protesters that have been detained since Saturday; to treat all the injured and provide compensations to the families of the deceased; and to bring to justice all those responsible for the violence. On the political demands they further agreed to dismiss the government of Dr. Sharaf and appoint a national-unity government; to hold the elections on time starting next week; to guarantee free and fair elections; and to give a definite date for the transfer to civilian rule by holding presidential elections no later than June 30, 2012.

When Tantawi delivered his speech that evening by promising a new government, keeping the elections date intact, and the end of military rule by next June, people in Tahrir were no longer satisfied. They kept shouting, “You leave, we’re staying,” the same chant that eventually caught up with Mubarak.

The immediate problem now is the total lack of trust between the people in the streets and the military council. The people are tired of the cat and mouse game played by SCAF, where every major demand is only conceded through much struggle. Although it is true that SCAF was instrumental in accelerating the ouster of Mubarak, it is also now quite clear to the revolutionaries that SCAF has had a different agenda that oftentimes conflicts with the objectives of their revolution.

Now the revolutionaries have vowed to stay in Tahrir until SCAF cedes effective power long before next year to a new civilian national-unity government empowered to supervise the elections, supervise the writing of the constitution, and implement all their objectives without any interference or dictation by the military.

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com