In one way, the army has done Egypt’s protesters a considerable favour. On Friday, instead of lulling the country into a false sense of security about the military’s stewardship, the generals forcefully reminded several hundred protestors that there is still work to be done.
After security forces cleared out Tahrir Square, in the worst violence against protesters since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, there were ominous signs that the honeymoon period may be coming to an end. “I am one of thousands of people who stood their ground after the army started dispersing the protesters,” Ashraf Omar, a protester who was at the square, told Reuters.
Some protest leaders sounded a note of concern about the military from the beginning, but Egypt’s armed forces weathered the unrest fairly well in terms of public opinion. By apparently not taking sides, they were welcomed by many as an interim guarantor of stability until civilian politics can be organised.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has already tried to make amends for Friday night’s clashes with protesters, saying soldiers acted without authorisation and apologising for “unintentional confrontations”. Those words will ring hollow if the generals do not offer a transparent, consultative transition to civilian rule.
In both Egypt and Tunisia, the question that remains is what will happen now that the revolutions have “succeeded”. The autocratic figureheads have fled or been forced out, but the old guard, who have always relied on the military for support, are still firmly in control. In Egypt, the acting prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, as well as the defence and foreign policy ministers are still Mubarak appointees.
Not even the most ardent activist would wish for chaos in the aftermath of the protests. The army has a legitimate role to maintain order, but it has to realise that its de facto control of government is an interim arrangement. The newly discovered people power in the Middle East was not marshalled on behalf of military coups.
The army risks a confrontation with a newly politicised population. The strategy that is becoming a hallmark of recent unrest in the Middle East – “karr wa far”, “attack and retreat” – is already losing credibility. They can apologise only so many times.
These are still momentous times in Egypt. Yesterday a committee recommended constitutional amendments that would set term limits on the next president, answering one major grievance that led to Mr Mubarak’s fall.
Protesters need to give these reforms time to unfold ahead of the next elections. But they can only do so if they trust the military caretakers to eventually bow to the people’s will.