Three demonstrations held in Cairo on Friday reflect the disastrous political
and social situation in Egypt 10 months after the toppling of Hosni
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The first, in Tahrir Square, called on the Supreme Council of
the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over its powers immediately to a civilian
The second, in the Abassia district, wanted the military to keep
on ruling till the transition period was over.
The third, organized by
the Muslim Brothers (who were absent from the Tahrir demonstration) met at the
al-Azhar Mosque under the banner of “Free al-Aksa” – and was an anti-Israel
The notions of dialogue and compromise are still foreign to an
Egyptian society reeling after a very long period of living under a
The immediate blame is going to the SCAF, which did not try
to create a dialogue between the various political forces and share with them
the decision-making process. It kept its deliberations secret and issued without
consultation laws which all parties opposed, such as forbidding strikes and
trying so-called troublemakers in military courts (more than 12,000 civilians
were sentenced by these courts).
Yet the SCAF has been conducting an
uneasy dialogue with the Muslim Brothers from the day it took power, February
11, because it was convinced that they were the only significant factor in the
Senior officers believed that they could come to an
understanding; they would help the Brothers form the new government after the
elections, and they in turn would turn a blind eye to the close links between
high ranking officers and the Mubarak regime. It is well known that former and
present day officers hold at least a third of the Egyptian economy and may have
been involved in corrupt deals.
This dialogue took place away from public
scrutiny and led to a form of cooperation.
The army made a few changes to
the constitution and the Brothers voted for these changes, together with members
of the old regime. In the referendum carried out in March, the changes were
approved by more than 77 percent of the voters.
Secular parties had
opposed the changes, which they considered as far too minor and not significant;
they wanted a whole new constitution drafted straight away. This led to an open
rift between the religious and the secular parties.
In recent months, the
Brothers refrained from participating in most of the demonstrations organized by
the so-called youngsters of the revolution and the secular parties, since they
were keen to see the elections held as scheduled, before the secular parties had
time to get organized and gather wider popular support.
At some point the
SCAF appeared to realize what should have been obvious from the first: the
Muslim Brotherhood, having used it to gain power, intends to set up an Islamic
regime and impose Shari’a law. It was something that high ranking officers could
not accept. After all, during the Mubarak years, one of their tasks had been to
fight the movement and to bar access to the army to its followers. The dialogue
then came to a bloody end.
The present crisis started on Friday, November
18, following the mass demonstration organized by the Muslim Brothers to protest
the so-called Aly Salmi memorandum drafted by the deputy prime minister of that
name at the request of the SCAF.
This document set down binding rules for
the future constitution. The army was to be considered the keeper of the
constitution, be solely in charge of fixing its own budget and be free of
parliamentary control and not subject to civil courts. This was of paramount
importance since high ranking officers wanted to be sure they could not be tried
for alleged or real corruption during the Mubarak regime.
This was going
too far. In a rare show of unity, religious and secular parties were vocal in
their opposition and demanded that the army recognize the supremacy of civil
institutions as in any normal democracy: Wasn’t that the whole point of the
revolution? Faced with this unified front and fearing renewed demonstrations,
the army backed down; a new document was drafted, without most of the
controversial provisions; it stated that the army was responsible to civilian
authorities and that its function was to protect the country.
the article stipulating that a National Security Council headed by the president
would be set up was not deleted; this council was to deal with all issues
pertaining to the army – national security and budget included. It would have
given the army the tools to prevent a Brotherhood takeover of
Other articles were intended to protect basic human rights, thus
putting another legal obstacle to the installation of an Islamic
The Muslim Brothers and the Salafist parties saw this as an
attempt to turn the army into the guardian of the country’s secular nature –
similar to what Ataturk did in Turkey – and called for the mass demonstration
which was held on Friday, November 18.
Secular parties did not want to
join the fray. They are very much conflicted. On the one hand they are afraid
that the Brothers will win the forthcoming elections and will try to set up an
Islamic regime – but they do not want the army to have a special status. On the
other hand they need the army which alone can prevent the establishment of an
Islamic state – but they don’t want a military dictatorship.
demonstration was held peacefully. However, the following morning youngsters and
Salafists came back to Tahrir Square to demand the ousting of Field Marshal
Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, and violence broke out. The army
decided on a show of force and ordered the police to drive the demonstrators
from the square.
During the clashes, 40 people died and 3,000 were
No one had expected the bloody violence which exploded in Tahrir
Square, leading to the resignation of the government, the ministers having
wisely concluded that since there was nothing they could do, it was best to
leave and not have to bear the responsibility for the dead and
The Muslim Brothers did not participate in the confrontation
which they had started.
They also announced that they would not take part
in the demonstration that the young protesters called for the following
Tantawi backed down again.
In a television address on
Wednesday he announced that presidential elections would be advanced to June
2012, instead of sometime in 2013 according to the original schedule. He also
said that he was about to form a new government which would be acceptable by the
The following day, on the eve of the Friday “March of a million,”
dubbed the “last chance,” the SCAF announced the appointment of Kamal Ganzouri
as prime minister.
This led to howls of protests from the Tahrir
The 78-year-old Ganzour, a seasoned politician and savvy
economist, is a former prime minister and a man of the hated Mubarak regime
(even though he resigned because of a conflict with Mubarak on economic policy).
To defuse the situation, Ganzouri promised to form his new government through
dialogue with all political forces and to include the young
Now there is a stalemate. In Tahrir Square there are
still many protesters declaring they do not want Ganzouri and will not go home
until the SCAF turns over its powers to a civilian council. The Muslim Brothers
and the secular parties no longer trust the SCAF, but understand that right now
the choice is between the army and total anarchy; therefore they still call for
the elections to take place on Monday.
In a bitterly divided Egypt,
people are in a state of shock.
The political arena is split between
secular, Islamists, young revolutionary and other political parties in a state
of total confusion.
As for the army, it cannot relinquish power because
there is no one to take over. There is talk of setting up a civilian
presidential committee, or of handing the reins to the Supreme Court, but there
is no consensus for either solution and it is hard to see how organizations
which are not representative and which have no executive powers could maintain
law and order while ensuring an orderly political process in the chaotic
situation prevailing today.
It seems as if the army will have to stay on
while keeping the elections on course, opening a frank dialogue with all
political forces and drafting with them the longed-awaited new
Altogether, a seemingly impossible endeavor.The
writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.
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