x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Egypt's activists need patience, and vigilance

If impatience in Egypt spills over into violence, it will only benefit those who falsely believe Egypt can never prosper with civilians at the helm.

Egypt has a new Tahrir Square. For the last few days, clashes have flared between protestors and armed men in Abbassiya Square, around the Ministry of Defence in central Cairo.

Protests by Egyptians angry at the disqualification of an Islamist candidate from this month's presidential election were met with serious force by armed men, reminiscent of the beltagia thugs who entered Tahrir Square on horseback last year to attack protestors. This time around at least 20 people were killed, some shot in the head.

The reaction from ordinary Egyptians has been serious, prompting some of the worst clashes in the city for months. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which has ruled Egypt since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year, were forced to react, declaring that they were committed to a transfer of power and that they would not attack protesters.

Scaf is still the bogeyman to most of Egypt's protesters: liberals worry they are colluding with the Islamists to perpetuate some elements of their power; Islamists and their supporters accuse them of not bowing sufficiently to the democratic process; and all sides express scepticism that a military elite that has ruled Egypt since independence could ever give up their power, perks and privileges.

Despite everything, there is much to be pleased with in post-revolution Egypt. The presidential elections are still on track. Parliamentary elections have taken place. Democratically elected politicians wield power in a way unthinkable just over a year ago. The revolution, while not on a steady path, does still motivate and influence young people.

Civilian rule is coming to Egypt: slowly, erratically. The protesters have every right to protest, eager for their voice, and the voice of their preferred presidential candidates, to be heard. Recent disqualifications of some Islamist candidates has predictably frustrated supporters.

But Egyptians of all political persuasion must protest with patience. Scaf, too, must not over-react. If the plainclothes thugs fuelling the fires at Abbassiya Square are not under their command, then Scaf must not take the bait of responding to violence with an authoritarian fist. Impatience with the political process is natural - and Egyptians are right to be vigilant - but if impatience spills over into violence, it will only benefit those supporting the false narrative that Egypt will never prosper if civilians replace those in uniform.

It is right for Egyptians to watch closely, but as the presidential election approaches they ought to be careful.