Reigniting the Egyptian Revolution…إعادة إشعال الثورة المصرية

For nearly fifty-four hours, Tahrir Square and its surrounding alleys have born witness to sustained clashes between central security forces and protestors (most of which of have been centered around Mohammed Mahmoud Street.) At the time at this posting, an estimated thirty-five people have perished and hundreds more have sustained injuries of varying degrees. In addition to the usual rocks and a new type of tear gas, central security forces have fired buckshot, rubber bullets, and live ammunition in an effort to disperse the protestors. Undeterred these protestors are gathering in increasing larger numbers to demand the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its replacement with a civilian council. SCAF in turn has announced the passaged of a legislation banning former NDP members while insisting the first round of parliamentary elections will be held as scheduled in a week’s time on November 28.

To understand the profound frustration of those gathered in Tahrir Square, it is necessary to review the failures of SCAF and political organizations from all sides of the political spectrum (be they leftist, liberal, or Islamist) to ensure the realization of the promised democratic transition – especially the increased political polarization between the Islamists and the liberal and leftist groups. As each considered that SCAF to be the lesser of two evils, the generals were allowed to manipulate transition process.

Recognizing the substantial and rapid political reform would delay parliamentary elections thereby undermining their organizational advantage, Islamists refused to support repeated liberal sit-ins and protests that demanded, among many other reforms, the purification of the security sector and an end to military tribunals. Instead, they turned a blind eye as security forces continued to torture detainees and the number of civilians (predominantly liberal activists) tried before military tribunals exceeded that of the entire thirty years of Mubarak’s rule. Moreover, recognizing the liberals ‘dependency on independent media outlets and contentious politics to disseminate their demands’, Islamists refused to condemn the increased censorship of independent media outlets, the incarceration of bloggers and the violent dispersal of strikes and sit-ins.

Meanwhile, fearing that the established patronage and organizational networks enjoyed by the Islamists (especially the Muslim Brotherhood) would grant them a substantial share of the elected parliament charged with forming the commission that will draft the constitution, this spring the liberal and leftist political actors demanded that SCAF impose a set of supra-constitutional principles to ensure basic human rights and freedoms. SCAF has since manipulated these demands to release a series of principles that would ensure that the generals’ core economic and political interests are enshrined in the constitution itself. (Specifically: a military council must approve any declaration of war, the details of the military’s budget are the exclusive purview of military itself, and SCAF will select eighty percent of the hundred person commission charged with drafting the constitution.)

In light of these super-constitutional principles released earlier this month and the insistence to remain as the active president until the end of 2012, it is clear that SCAF has no interest in surrendering power to a popularly elected civilian government able to threaten its political and economic interests but rather seeks to hide behind the veil of a a weak popularly-legitimate civilian government that wields no actual political power. With Essam El-Sharif’s government having lost its popular legitimacy somewhere between the July sit-in and Black Sunday at Maspero and the Islamist, liberal, and leftist political actors temporarily burying the hatchet of political polarization on November 18, SCAF recognizes that its veil has been torn and thus seeks to rush a flawed electoral process that it hopes will allow it to avoid real reform by hiding behind a popularly-elected but powerless parliament.

Despite this flawed electoral process and the ongoing clashes, major political parties (Wafd, Muslim Brotherhood, have yet to suspend their political campaigns let alone announce a boycott of elections – much to the ire of those gathered in Tahrir Square. Instead while acknowledging the inevitability a clash between the revolution and SCAF, the parties seem to prefer that the clash occur between various institutions within the political system rather than between protestors and security forces in Tahrir Square. If this continues, political parties may be in danger of losing their interlocutor status as their demands stray from those of the protestors thereby increasing the difficulty of diffusing the situation in a peaceful manner.

Differing Conceptions of Egypt

Meanwhile many feel that these events are nothing more than a foreign ploy to drive Egypt in further economic and political chaos. Nonetheless with a “million man march” scheduled for tomorrow, protests spreading into the governates, and independent political candidates urging their supporters to join the masses in Tahrir Square, the situation continues to slowly escalate without a clear endgame. For more information, peruse the links on the sidebar and follow the events live at #tahrir and Al-Jazeera’s Arabic livestream

Update 9:15pm: SCAF accepts the resignation of Prime Minister Essam El-Sharif and his cabinet. No word yet as to who will be replacing them. As stated earlier, El-Sharif has no legitimacy in the eyes of the protestors whom have recognized that his government wielded no actual power. This will only serve as a signal that SCAF can be pressured into undertaking reform when faced with large popular protests and other forms of contentious politics. Moreover it signals that SCAF feels that it cannot afford to violently repress the protests. Granting the protestors momentum will yield a bandwagon effect that couple with a lowered perceived social cost of protesting will lead to additional a substantial increase in number of protestors gathering in the square.

Update 10:33pm: It appears that the announcement of Essam El-Sharif’s government was premature. Stay tuned to al-Jazeera for future details.

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