x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Egyptians go to the polls, but their future stays in Tahrir

Whatever happens in Egypt's elections, the spirit of Tahrir Square is still alive, still in the square, and has an enduring importance.

When Essam Sharaf was appointed prime minister in March, Tahrir Square was hemmed in by tanks and armoured cars. There were bored soldiers smoking cigarettes sitting on the turrets, the heavy guns pointed tactfully away from the protesters, and army officers chatting easily with civilians at the fringes of the crowd.

Nine months later, the army has largely conceded the streets. After last week's violence which killed at least 42 and led to Mr Sharaf's resignation, there is not a uniform in sight. Protesters' tents have spread from the central ring to the other courtyards while the street to the interior ministry, which saw some of the worst violence of recent days, is cordoned off by protesters. At the parliamentary buildings on Magles El Shaab 100 metres away, protesters are camped up to the very gates, tents and mats covering the pavement. Only a few soldiers glumly stand guard, overlooked by the crowd out front.

And yet Tahrir's victory celebrations are mildly optimistic at best. The consensus is that the military's muted response proves one thing: that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is simply playing for time.

Egypt's "second revolution" was organised around opposition to the generals' constitutional claims on power, and after last week's violence, the military wholly ceded the square to protesters ahead of the start of elections. The last protester killed, Ahmed Sayed Sorour, 21, was run over when, witnesses on both sides say, armoured vehicles retreated from protesters in front of parliament on Saturday.

Today there is a feeling that after this first round of elections there will be violence, either from some political candidates or the state. There are rumours that the Interior Ministry continues to pay as much 10,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh6,100) to provocateurs per day, who are blamed for at least some of the Molotov cocktails thrown at soldiers (although the three US students who were deported are generally derided as typifying the hotheads who risk weakening the protest).

For the time being at least, the protesters' willingness to return to Tahrir has neutered the threat of violence. Many young men, and some young women, are sporting bandages on their faces or hands, or have their arms in slings. A core of young protesters is still very much evident, ranging from guitar-playing solidarity circles to arm-pumping chanting throngs to philosophically sober discussion groups.

One young man staffing a stop-and-search entrance to the square pointed to a contusion on his face. "A bullet," he said grinning (assuredly he meant a rubber one). "But it's okay, this is Egypt." There are thousands who are ready around the clock, indeed some are eager, to face off with security forces again.

That constituency could be cleared out, as nobody can argue that a concerted push by armed soldiers could be stopped. And the emergency law is still in place, the undeniable occupying power of the protesters subject to eviction by force, legally speaking at least. So far, the army has resisted the temptation.

The question is who blinks first. More troubling for authorities is that the tent activists are again joined by a broad segment of society. Some of the most vocal protesters look to be about 12; university students, young men and women, make up a considerable proportion of the crowds, obviously a middle class contingent; and, although not as many as in the more optimistic days, families toting babies.

As much as anything in recent days, Tahrir Square has been a festival, people with Egyptian flags painted on hands and cheeks and taking pictures with banners in the backdrop. Sure, there are explosions and sirens, but they are now of fireworks and ambulances without patients cheating through the traffic, and nobody blinks. Egypt's protesters, its political public, is celebrating more than protesting.

As the first round of elections began yesterday, people were congregating at polling stations in what, despite widespread misgivings, looked to be a massive turnout. People don't know where these elections will lead, but the protest movement's ability to recapture Tahrir remains the greatest democratic guarantee for a future Egypt.