x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Letter from Cairo: Tahrir Square protesters learn from 'mistakes'

The protests that overshadowed yesterday’s election reveal a new breed of demonstrator who is less willing to be led by the loudest voices, Youssef Hamza reports.

The protests that overshadowed yesterday’s election reveal a new breed of demonstrator who is less willing to be led by the loudest voices, Youssef Hamza reports

There are no podiums or stage microphones in Cairo's Tahrir Square this time around. There are no chants of "peaceful, peaceful" either and the atmosphere is both uncompromising and gritty.

In many ways, Egypt's second wave of protests is distinctly different from the one that swept the country for 18 days and led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak in February.

The protesters say they have learnt from the mistakes they made during the January-February uprising - no podiums, so no one gets a chance to "hijack the revolution", no microphones, so no one presumes to tell the square what to do and no chants of "peaceful, peaceful" because the police and their army backers are not likely to heed calls for calm or accept offers of olive branches.

The new-look Tahrir has thousands of protesters who fought police and soldiers with zeal and commitment for five days last week, using firebombs and slings.

At least 41 protesters were killed in demonstrations last week in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez and more than 2,000 others wounded.

Tahrir is more leaderless now than it was back in January and February, with a free-for-all atmosphere, though activists hope they would eventually produce a leader to unify their ranks.

The situation in today's square has overshadowed the once eagerly awaited parliamentary elections scheduled to start today, deepened the country's economic and security woes and threatens to divide the nation further.

The current protests began just over a week before the elections, the first since Mr Mubarak's departure, and aim to force the generals who took over to immediately step down. In their place, the protesters want a civilian presidential council and a "national salvation" government that would jointly run the country until a president is elected.

The protest leaders insist that they, not the military, select the country's interim leaders. They are conducting an informal election among the tens of thousands in Tahrir and elsewhere in the country to pick a leader for the proposed council and his deputies. Mohamed ElBaradei, the nation's top pro-reform leader, is the most likely winner of the informal election. How the square plans to formally install him in power is not clear, but the selection process is clearly an attempt not to repeat what the protesters say was the biggest mistake of the January-February uprising - handing the reins of power to the military because they did not have a leader of their own.

The square's protesters have rejected the appointment by the military of a Mubarak-era prime minister to head an interim government. Kamal El Ganzouri, 78, served under Mr Mubarak between 1996 and 1999. The US-educated technocrat has not been tainted by the corruption allegations that touched most Mubarak regime stalwarts, but his choice amounted to a slap in the face of protesters already seething over the military's perceived reluctance to dismantle the ousted leader's 29-year legacy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organised political group, has boycotted the protests in Cairo and a string of major cities across the nation. Its decision has revived suspicions that the group was secretly coordinating policy with the military, something that the generals have repeatedly denied. The Brotherhood maintains the protests pose a threat to national unity, but its boycott has been widely linked to the elections.

The group, empowered by Mr Mubarak's departure after nearly six decades as an illegal organisation, is expected to dominate the elections along with its Islamist allies. The group, say the activists, does not want to be engaged in any action that could threaten its best shot at translating its popular appeal to formal political muscle.

The military has offered to immediately return to the barracks if Egyptians vote in favour of it surrendering power in a nationwide referendum. The military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi made the offer in a televised address last week but he did not say when such a vote would be held.

It is not clear at all if Field Marshall Tantawi's offer was serious or whether he was bluffing or was throwing the gauntlet to the protesters in Tahrir demanding that he and his fellow generals step down.

But the military, the nation's most powerful institution, is not likely to risk an embarrassing defeat and will most likely strike a deal with political groups that could be persuaded to deliver enough votes to defeat those in favour of its immediate return to the barracks.

The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies will be the obvious choice of allies for the generals. Such a deal could move the Brotherhood and other Islamists closer to their dream of an Islamic Egypt under their tutelage. The Brotherhood and their Salafi allies have shown remarkable campaign skills in a referendum held in March on constitutional amendments proposed by the military. Taking advantage of the piety of most of Egypt's Muslims, they portrayed a "yes" vote as one cast for Islam and a "no" vote to be for the "immoral" liberals and the minority Christians.

It worked.

The amendments were adopted by a vast majority, and there is no reason to believe it would not happen again if a second referendum is held on whether the military should immediately go. Significantly, the military has in recent days cited the endorsement of the amendments in the March vote as proof of the legitimacy of its rule to counter Tahrir's calls for it to surrender.

Much has been said by analysts, activists and columnists about the military and the Brotherhood having a meeting of minds that pits them against the liberal youth groups behind Mubarak's departure and the continuing wave of protests. The military has repeatedly denied the two were in cohorts, but that did not silence those who say they have forged a secret alliance similar to that between the army officers who toppled the monarchy in a 1952 coup and the Brotherhood then. Like it was then, many believe today's suspected Brotherhood-military alliance is built entirely on common short-term interests, but not ideology.

Others believe the two sides came together because the military on coming to power in February could not find anyone with genuine popular base to speak to except the Brotherhood.

The generals, who have been passionately arguing the legitimacy of their rule, have also resorted to divide-and-rule tactics to counter the growing appeal of the Tahrir crowds. On Friday, a rival though much smaller crowd gathered in a square not far from the defence ministry to voice support for the military.

The state television's coverage of the protests has been clearly pro-military, with hosts hauling one guest after another to the studios to speak of the disastrous effect on the economy of the protests and the inexperience and naivety of the Tahrir protesters.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae