Every wondered what one hundred thousand people looks like? How about five hundred thousand? How about one million?
More than one million people are expected to gather in Tahrir Square tomorrow while thousands of others gather in their local squareس throughout Egypt. While the April 6th Movement has been organizing this Day of Rage for nearly a month, the expressed goals of the protests have shifted. Gone are the polarizing demands for the drafting of a Constitution prior to parliamentary elections. In their place is a laundry list of specific economic and political reforms.
1. The rapid public trial and suspension from duty of those accused of killing protestors during the revolution.
2. The creation a monetary fund for those injured and killed in the revolution.
3. Increasing the minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian pounds per month, imposing an unspecified maximum wage, and increasing unemployment assistance to 500 pounds a month.
4. The purification of all institutions – specially the police, the judiciary, the media, the universities, and the government ministries.
5. The execution of the judiciary ruling on the local legislative bodies.
6. The cessation of the trial of civilians in military courts.
7. The confiscation and return of all stolen wealth.
8. The resignation of all provincial governors linked with corruption.
9. The review of all natural gas contracts and the cessation natural gas exports to Israel.
10. The determination of the natural security’s jurisdiction by submitting the issue to judicial supervision.
While these demands represent the broad desires of many Egyptians, they are not what motivates the one million people expected to gather in Tahrir Square tomorrow. The violent repression of the family and friends of the revolution’s martyrs on June 28 and June 29 resembled the behavior of an entrenched authoritarian regime rather than an emerging democracy. As a result, Egyptians from all political ideologies (including the Muslim Brotherhood), religions and social classes have elected to march to Tahrir Square and join with those who waged a week-long sit to “save revolution”.
Despite the lack of transparency within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the events of the past few months shed light on its possible responses. On the Egyptian political chessboard, SCAF has historically sought to sacrifice pawns to save its king; lesser interests are abandoned to preserve core interests.
Since it assumed power in February, SCAF has been reluctant to publicly try members of the former regime, let alone pursue substantive and transparent political reform. Instead, it has attempted to use Egyptians’ hatred of Israel to distract them from the task at hand. When pressed through large protests and other forms of contentious politics, however, SCAF avoids violent repression. Instead, it attempts to rob the protests of the numbers necessary to exert pressure for substantive remove by peeling off factions through symbolic reform – especially the trial of figureheads from the previous regime. (For instance, when thousands gathered in mid-April to protest delays in political reform, SCAF responded by incarcerating of Mubarak and his sons in Tora Form prison.)
While tomorrow carries much of the same potential, such symbolic measures are likely to fail. While emotive aspects of the trials of those police officers accused of killing protestors during the revolution make them the perfect tool to peel hundreds of thousands away from the million gathered in Tahrir Square, Egyptians have begun to recognize the pattern in SCAF’s behavior.
What happens next is the crux of the issue. Given that many Egyptians have grown tired of the economic and political instability caused by street protests, SCAF may then elect to test the protestors’ patience and staying power through prolonged silence. If protestors continue to gather in large quantities, however, SCAF will find itself in a situation similar to that of this past February when it was forced to chose between violent repression and the sacrifice of a core interest. In February it elected to sacrifice Mubarak rather than engage in violent repression.
Despite its recent relative successes in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, violent repression remains a tenuous option. Protestors outnumber the combined corps of the Central Security Forces and Army. Army soldiers and NCOs are conscripts and thus more likely to defect to the protestors than open fire on them (as demonstrated by the events of April 8). Moreover, extended violence would plunge the economy into a deeper recession harming SCAF’s substantial economic interests.
Without a Mubarak to district the protestors from realizing the demands of their revolution, will the SCAF finally be forced to sacrifice additional core interests and accede to their demands?
I will not soil the most important day in the revolution since the departure of Mubarak on February 11 by making a prediction. Ultimately, only the days (and possibly weeks) to come will reveal the answer.
I apologize for the lack of posts this week. I’ve been working with Tik Root on an op-ed for the AUC’s Tahrir Forum and it has taken up most of my free time. I promise to make it up to you all this weekend.
If I were not in Cairo at the moment I’d by up on Cass Lake in Northern Minnesota teaching swimming, leading some canoe trips, and listening to taps:
The Day is done; gone the Sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
As evening descends, it is fitting that I attempt an analytical update on what has become a deceptively stable situation in Tahrir. Early Yesterday afternoon, the clashes along Mohammed Mahmoud St remained in a stalemate as the protestors never gathered the critical masses necessary to push Central Security Forces (CSF) of the pivotal intersection leading to the Interior Ministry. Later that afternoon, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered the CSF to stand down, deployed soldiers to protect the Interior Ministry, and launched an formal inquiry to ascertain the causes of the violence scene in Cairo over the past few days. While these actions mollified many of the protestors, others declared the start of the “Second Revolution” and called for a sit-in in Tahrir Square. To that end, a couple hundred people pitched a couple of tents and spent last night in Tahrir.
In fact, the situation was so calm that I had class at the American University today despite the fact that its gate was located in the tear-gass-filled no man’s land yesterday.
All is not as it seems, however. All forms of police presence have withdrawn from Tahrir. The white-shirted traffic cops were nowhere to be found; instead youth from popular committees are directing traffic as SCAF has elected to secede the symbolic space to the protestors.
This small victory is misleading, however, as the protestors currently gathered in Tahrir face a number of critical issues:
1. There is no united goal. Some of the protestors are family and friends of the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution demanding justice for their loved ones. Others are social activists and youth leaders demanding the resignation of the minister of the interior, the head of SCAF, or both. A few are baltagiya (hoodlums) looking to provoke a fight. Others are liberals demanding the drafting of a constitution prior the holding of Parliamentary elections in September. Most, however, are spectators who journeyed to Tahrir to watch the spectacle unfold.
The protests of late January and early February that led to disposal of Mubarak presented a common goal that not only prevented the regime from peeling individual elements off from the greater whole, but more importantly provided a single rallying cry that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Tahrir. The current protests lack this unifying goal.
2. The protestors lack the critical mass necessary to procure change. As cliché as it sounds numbers matter and quantity has a quality all of its own. Efforts by the April 6th Movement to move up the July 8th Day of Rage to today failed; A Facebook Event has emerged calling for a week-long sit tomorrow in order to preserve the revolution (but at the time of this post it had a mere 401 attendees). Mobilizing large numbers people is extremely difficult. Not only must there by a common message (which the current protests lack), but that message must be publicized effectively. While communicational technology – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – certainly aids in the latter endeavor, it reaches only the slimmest of slivers within Egyptian society – a sliver most of whose constituency is already in Tahrir.
3. People are tired of the lack of security and stability. In March when more than seventy percent of the Egyptian society voted in favor of the constitutional amendments, many were persuaded that a “yes” vote would lead to economic stability. Instead, labor strikes and sit-ins have become a common occurrence; tourism and foreign investment have fled the country; and the Egyptian Pound is depreciating on a daily basis. Despite refusing loans from the IMF and World Bank, Egypt’s economy is in shambles and will likely face a foreign exchange crisis in the not so distance future. Continued protests ensure continued instability that will continue to deter both foreign investment and tourists. Thus, while it was difficult to put bread on the table during the reign of the Mubarak, this difficulty pales in comparison to current situation today. As a result, significant segments of the Egyptian society have become frustrated and are decrying protestors for their lack of patience.
4. There a large elements of Egyptian society that oppose any attempts to derail the transition process. The interests Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Salafists, SCAF and former opposition parties (like al-Wafd) are best served Parliamentary elections are held in September. A new government would provide a convenient whipping boy for SCAF as it seeks to dodge the public ire and preserve its historical rule as the dominant player in Egyptian politics – especially given its refusal to grant any new civilian government oversight to its internal affairs. Meanwhile, early elections favor the MB, Salafists, and former opposition parties as they already possess the local political networks necessary to mobilize voters in an election.
SCAF, however, continues make political errors and squander opportunities to defuse the situation. Today, they allowed the trial Khaled Said’s murder to be postponed to September 24. While this ultimately will ensure the justice runs its due course (by allowing the prosecution to present additional evidence), SCAF nonetheless missed an opportunity to alleviate some of the tension found in Tahrir.
Ultimately, however, it is too early to tell where these protests will lead. Despite their many flaws listed above, the protests nonetheless possess the potential to mushroom in the near future. For nearly a month, Constitution First coalitions have been meticulously organizing a Day of Rage for next Friday (July 8, 2011). That is day of reckoning; not only are its demands supported by a petition carrying more than 15 million signatures but it has been renamed the Friday of Retribution.
Class were canceled around 6:00am this morning and by 8:15 I had succumbed to the temptation of walking to Tahrir Square to investigate and document the situation.
Approaching the square along Tahrir Sreet it became obvious that the security forces had seceded the square to the protests. Not only was there no sign of the central security forces (military police) but all the dozens of traffic cops who normally loiter in the square were also nowhere to be bound. The square itself was a pedestrian only zone containing roughly 2000 or so people (although al-Jazeera claims as much as 5000) scattered throughout the square. Some were sleeping on the grass near the Maga` (bureaucracy building), and others were staring down the police line and its armored truck near the northern gate to the American University, but most were milling around the square.
Minutes later, the protestors began advanced towards the police line chanting, “The people desire the fall of the Field Marshal.”
The result was the second street battle in less than twelve hours that continues as I write. The police have made no effort to advance towards Tahrir Square but rather have been content to hold the intersection of Youssef El-Gindy St. and Mohammed Mahmoud St. in order to prevent the protestors from gaining access to the Ministry of the Interior. Tear gas and rocks are been used to disperse the protestors once they near the police line and some of the protestors have returned fire with Molotov cocktails and rocks of their own.
A couple Egyptians have perished in the past twelve hours and hundreds have been injured. Despite the many ambulances gathered at Tahrir Square, many of the injured have refused to leave the square in order to treat their wounds as it is rumored that the government is arresting people once they arrive at the hospitals.
The situation is a stalemate but tension fills the air. Those wandering the square are angry; they are angry with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces because of its violent repression; they are angry with the United States for producing and exporting tear gas; and they are angry with those who are content to drive by the revolution rather than participate in it.
This may be only the beginning…Many twitter feeds and Facebook groups have proclaimed the start of a “second revolution” to preserve the gains of the Jan. 25 Revolution by rectify the transgressions committed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Time will tell if these groups will be able to gather the critical mass of people in the streets that is necessary to force SCAF’s hand and yield actually changes in political policy.
In the interim, we wait and pray for safety of those brave enough to take their life in their own hands and demand the dignity and rights to which all peoples are entitled.
UPDATE (2:40pm 06/29/2011): Protesters have filled Tahrir and more are arriving every moment. The army has taken up positions around the Ministry of the Interior and the police are still guarding the intersection of Youssef El-Gindy St. and Mohammed Mahmoud St. Violence has subsided. More Updates