x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Egypt old guard needs restraint until elections

Egyptian military, take note: rounding up protesters simply won't cut it in a new atmosphere where people are not afraid to express their opinion.

Hosni Mubarak mounted his first public defence yesterday against allegations of corruption and the irresponsible use of force against protesters. The former president said that he had been targeted by an "unfair campaign". It is a complaint that will fail to win friends in Egypt where few will defend Mr Mubarak in public.

And it may inflame an already tense situation for the ruling military council. The statement came two days after Tahrir Square saw renewed fighting between protesters and the army.

Five months before parliamentary elections, the military council's credibility suffers at every report of violence in the Square and every new death. The generals say they want to relinquish control to a civilian government, but they keep repeating the same mistakes by trying to clear protesters by force.

A cynic would say it's obvious why the generals would want Tahrir Square emptied. For the first time, a significant voice has been raised among protesters demanding the resignation of Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the head of the ruling council, in addition to other purges of Mubarak loyalists.

It has been the uncomfortable truth staring everyone in the face. After almost three months since the regime's figurehead fell, the upper ranks of government are still dominated by former loyalists. Marshal Tantawi, in theory the steward of a new political era, was a defence minister with a reputation for resisting change just three months ago.

The fear of instability has been reason enough to ignore these contradictions. It has been a comforting thought that the army was the impartial guarantor of stability. Many Egyptians are tired of the unrest, nervous about the economy and just want the protesters to go home.

But the day is past when demonstrators could be asked - or forced - to give up. Each act of violence chips away at a legitimacy that will be difficult, if not impossible, to restore.

Yet the army cannot seems not to have learnt the lesson. "Tahrir Square will be emptied of protesters with firmness and force to ensure life goes back to normal," a senior officer, Major General Adel Emarah, told journalists on Saturday. It a threat that has been repeated for months, which is not just provocative but also seemingly toothless.

It is also misses the point: protests in Tahrir Square are, for the time being, the new "normal". The army only sweeps the Square when a few hundred protesters are left in the central camp, but hundreds of thousands still turn out on Fridays, to celebrate as well as demonstrate. The next five months will be critical for Egypt's future; the generals need to make peace with this new state of affairs.