x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Elections are first priority for a divided Egypt

Egypt's military should be shepherding a responsible transition to an elected civilian government, not hijacking the democratic process.

Nine months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Tahrir Square is again a scene of violence. At least 33 people have been killed and hundreds injured in these latest clashes between protesters and security forces. The demonstrations, which began peacefully on Friday and have spread across much of the country, raise concerns for the coming parliamentary elections that are scheduled to begin on Monday.

There was a belief in February that the military would shepherd a responsible transition to an elected civilian government. At first, that belief was founded on the soldiers' restraint during the anti-Mubarak protests. Over the subsequent months, and particularly in the last few days, that restraint has been wholly absent.

It is hard to believe that the generals controlling the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) did not see this coming. These Tahrir protests are a direct response of the so-called El Selmi Document, a proposal to give powers to the military above and beyond the constitution and any future civilian government. In retrospect, it seems to have been a spectacularly misjudged overreach.

The proposal was meant to guarantee a privileged position for the military in the future. But that kind of guarantee was never possible. A new government - and there will be a new government, whether these elections are delayed or not - will assuredly revisit the decisions made during this messy transition period. Unrest may delay the formation of that government, but it cannot prevent it.

While the generals hold power through the SCAF, they can still try to manipulate the situation, the next government and the constitution. But what is becoming clear is that protesters will challenge any manipulation in the streets. The generals, then, are forced to choose whether to shed blood to accomplish their goals, which they must realise would be subject to revision anyway.

The crucial decisions that are being made today are not about the long-term nature of the Egyptian polity, although it is possible that further unrest will empower more extremist factions on every side. Instead, it is how to get from today to the next government with the minimum of violence.

The violence in Tahrir over recent days has led to the suspension of campaigning and Monday's elections may be delayed again. For better or worse, politics have been eclipsed by protests against the military council, which intends to maintain power until 2013. That goal, like the SCAF's sweeping plan for the constitution, now seems starkly unrealistic.