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Cairo violence reveals the real hand of 'caretakers' in Egypt

As time goes by it becomes more evident that Egypt's military has no enthusiasm for yielding power to the people, revolution or no revolution.

Almost no one talks about the "Arab Spring" any more, and that's a good thing. Not only does that Eurocentric term describe Arab experience as a repeat of western history, but everyone knows that the Prague Spring ended in tragedy under the jackboot of the Red Army. But while we are on the matter of terminology, Sunday's bloody chaos in Cairo that saw 26 Coptic Christian protesters killed and hundreds injured was a sharp reminder that the term "revolution" may not be entirely appropriate either.

Revolution was certainly the goal of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who took to the streets last February to force out President Hosni Mubarak. But a revolution is a transfer of power, and what transpired in Egypt now looks more like a coup - the head of the regime was forced out and replaced by a junta of 26 generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that styled itself "caretakers of the revolution". The generals promised a transition to democratic civilian rule, although on terms and a timetable of their own choosing.

Their immediate priority was to bring the rebellion to an end, clearing protesters off the streets with a combination of popular gestures - such as putting Mr Mubarak on trial - and repression. The hated emergency laws remain in effect; more than 7,000 Egyptians have been detained since Mr Mubarak's ouster; and military tribunals continue to try people for political offences (such as criticising the military).

The Mubarak regime was notorious for manipulating sometimes violent sectarian tensions, presenting itself as the only guarantor of stability. No surprise, then, that many saw a dark agenda playing out in the latest clashes, and not necessarily the "foreign conspiracy" proclaimed by the authorities. Those who saw footage of the clashes were shocked by the level of violence by the security forces, but state media was clearly manipulated, even making sectarian appeals to "honest Egyptians" to "protect the armed forces" from "the Copts".

It would be paranoid to suggest anyone is capable of manipulating the entire political scenario in Egypt right now. The protagonists of the violent campaign against Christians are clearly Salafists, who have made an unprecedented foray into the political realm by forming parties that plan to contest elections - and siphon off votes from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the complex power struggle currently underway has a number of different players. As Hussein Agha and Rob Malley noted recently in The New York Review of Books: "The Arab world's immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists ... There are many possible outcomes - from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamisation. But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed ... Things are not as they seem. The sound and fury of revolutionary moments can dull the senses and obscure the more ruthless struggles going on in the shadows."

Mr Mubarak's regime was not a personality cult, but a six-decades-old system of authoritarian rule rooted in the security forces - Mr Mubarak, and before him Nasser and Sadat might have assumed the civilian office of the presidency, but it was their military status that got them there. And it will require an existential volte face for Egypt's generals to subordinate themselves to a civilian leadership chosen by a sovereign electorate rather than to one of their own.

So, while Mr Mubarak is gone, his regime remains intact. The junta claims for itself the absolute authority to set the terms, timetable and rules of any electoral process, and it has already made clear that it will not cede power before 2013, at the earliest. Deadlines set by the generals until now have, of course, been somewhat elastic: the elections due to begin on November 28 were originally to have been held by September, and no one will be terribly surprised if the latest outbreak of sectarian violence leads to further delays.

The US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, last week admitted that nobody - not even the generals themselves - knew when the junta intended to hand power to a democratically elected government. And the point, of course, is that we will know when the generals tell us, because the decision is entirely in their hands. The popular uprising that prompted them to get rid of Mr Mubarak has been driven off the streets, losing momentum and the political initiative. Today, the political parties approach the generals as supplicants, as in Mr Mubarak's day, at least in the sense that nobody on either side of the conversation has any doubts where the power lies. It takes a spectacular leap of the imagination to believe that these same generals will, sometime in the coming months or years, subordinate themselves to political leaders who are chosen as the democratically elected government.

The generals are not entirely unresponsive, of course. They hear the complaints of the political leaders, and they make such adjustments in their own plans as they deem necessary to maintain control and stability. In supplanting Mr Mubarak and adjusting their own plans in concert with a shifting political reality, the generals have shown great skill and flexibility in managing the transition, at least in so far as it keeps their hands on the wheel.

"The people and the army are one hand" was a great slogan for a crowd in Tahrir Square looking to convince rank and file soldiers not to shoot or beat them. It was always more wishful thinking than reality. And the greater danger, of course, is that the generals can cynically toss the same slogan back on those questioning the military's control over the transition. A hand, of course, does not make its own decisions; it is ruled by a brain. Right now, the generals are jealously keeping that role for themselves.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron

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