x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Analysis: Egypt is at its most fragile since the fall of Mubarak

In challenging the military, its silent majority must decide whether to join the protesters and risk delaying elections, or to leave change to elected representatives.

A protester throws a tear gas canister, earlier thrown by riot police, during clashes near Tahrir Square yesterday.
A protester throws a tear gas canister, earlier thrown by riot police, during clashes near Tahrir Square yesterday.

CAIRO // After eight months of post-Mubarak uncertainty in Egypt, this week was supposed to mark the beginning of an era in which citizens could take the country back into their own hands through a newly-forged democracy.

But after the violent confrontations between protesters and security forces in Tahrir Square and around the country that started on Saturday and caused the deaths of at least 33 people and injuries to more than 1,500, the road map for transferring power from the military to a civilian government is under threat.

Egypt is going through one of its most fragile moments since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11 amid a massive uprising.

Yesterday, Egypt's ruling military council reportedly agreed to form a new government that will hold a presidential election before July, bowing to protesters for a swifter transfer of power. A parliamentary election, scheduled to start on Monday, is expected to go ahead.

Several scenarios are possible in the coming days, analysts said.

The situation could ease if the protesters respond to the generals' Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (Scaf) announcement of speedier elections and a new government. Or, as was looking increasingly probable last night as bedding and supplies were sent by lorries into the square for a long-term stay, the protesters may refuse to leave until all their demands are met, including an end to military trials and the resignation of the Scaf from running the country.

If the generals do not make more concessions, they still have the option of bulldozing the elections through as planned, using the military's might to protect voting stations and sticking to the narrative that the protesters in Tahrir are an unrepresentative minority.

Either way, tension was still building last night as thousands remained in the square, chanting against the military and waging street warfare with the police.

"We really are in a crisis," said Elijah Zarwan, an independent political analyst in Cairo. "It is probably not too late to rescue the situation, but the window is rapidly closing."

Compared with last month's swift and orderly elections for a constitutional assembly in Tunisia - where even campaign posters were placed in specially painted boxes on city walls - Egypt's first attempts at building a new democracy appear to be a mess.

One major difference between the two countries is how the Egyptian military has managed the country after Mr Mubarak stepped down, said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

The military has created ill will for months, insisting on extending its powers, prosecuting civilians in military courts, and censoring the media.

"They have woefully mismanaged the transition at almost every step of the way," he said. "Tunisia didn't have a military that was mucking about.

"The disaffection in Egypt is because people haven't seen real changes. They've seen an unelected military government that is in many ways similar to Mubarak, using many of the authoritarian tactics."

The problem is how to challenge the military's authority, Mr Hamid said. The protesters in Tahrir Square have been chanting for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Scaf's head, to step down. Meanwhile the would-be political class, led by the Islamists, believes the military can be confronted only by representatives elected by the people.

Both sides are now battling for the hearts and minds of the silent majority of Egyptians, many of whom have so far refused to join the protests in Tahrir Square - even after a "million-man" march was called yesterday to protest against the military and the harsh crackdown of security forces.

It was still unclear yesterday how widely Egyptians support the protests. Polls in recent months show increased disaffection with the use of Tahrir Square as a staging ground for activism.

Of 2,400 people surveyed in August by Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, 42 per cent strongly agreed and 23 per cent somewhat agreed that "protesters should be prevented from using Tahrir Square".

The tumult now gripping Egypt is the culmination of the gradual fragmentation of the population that began the day after Mr Mubarak resigned and the military took control.

In the 18 days of the revolution, the hundreds of thousands of people protesting were exceptional because of the unity of purpose among such a diverse collection of families, rich and poor, men and women, the pious and non-believers.

But as parties formed and the political competition began in earnest in the months that followed, a new divisiveness took hold.

By the start of this month the electoral field was already split into two broader blocs: the Islamists versus the secularists.

The protests in Tahrir Square have revealed a new fissure among voters, dividing those who believe the only way to build a true democracy is to sweep out the current interim government from those who want to go ahead with next week's elections.

"Most of the people in the square don't even care about the elections," said Ramy Yaccoub, a political strategist who has spent the past several days observing the events in Tahrir Square.

"The feeling is that the elections are a hoax, that the only way to preserve the revolution is to cleanse the [military] government and the cabinet."