Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians packed Tahrir Square today demanding an end to military rule. Islamists and non-Islamist forces combined forces on the eve of Parliamentary elections in a show of popular strength demanding a real, rapid transition from military rule to democracy. The size of the turnout and the unity of the message will send a strong, and incredibly important, message to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: it should not delay a transition to civilian rule, it should back off from its proposed pro-military supra-constitutional document, and it should stop its abuses of military courts and emergency law.
That message is carried by both the size and the unity of the November 18 demonstration. The numbers appear comparable to the rallies on July 8 and July 29. Activists have been unable to produce such a turnout in nearly five months, despite calling for "millions" to protest on almost a weekly basis. The Islamists put their organizational weight and numbers into this demonstration, as they did on July 29, while a wide range of other activist groups and political trends threw their support behind the demonstration. The images from Tahrir today reveal a turnout comparable to those other massive protest days. The SCAF will have to conclude that the street can still challenge them.
But equally important is the unity of the message. Months of polarization and growing fears about likely Islamist success in the Parliamentary elections have created terrain ripe for divisions and conflict, and indeed some political parties boycotted the protest because of the Islamist role. But today, the boycotting parties look like the losers. The Islamists and these other trends agreed to focus on the core political demand of pushing the SCAF for a real transfer to civilian rule rather than falling into divisive arguments over sharia. The demands, of Islamist and non-Islamist alike, focus on a rapid timetable for a transition to democracy and an end to military rule.
It helps that these popular demands are reinforced by pressure from outside. The Obama administration has been pushing similar demands upon the SCAF for a long time in private. It has recently decided to make increasingly publicly, with a blunt statement from Secretary of State Clinton on the risks of military rule and an important phone call from Obama to Field Marshal Tantawy pushing him on the transition to democracy. That message has also been increasingly bluntly stressed by the EU and a wide range of international NGOs. External public pressure alone would usually be counter-productive, since the SCAF would simply whip up nationalist resentment and denounce foreign interference. But that's harder to do when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are in the street demanding the same thing.
What comes next? The unity between political trends won't last, of course, as the fears and conflicts between Islamists and their rivals run deep and will be exacerbated by the election. But the SCAF has repeatedly shown over the last 10 months that it will reverse course when faced with serious pressure from the street, a unified set of political demands, and reinforcing pressure from key external actors like the United States. Today's protest has produced all three of those key ingredients. Hopefully, this will force the SCAF to respond positively to the key demands -- withdrawing or fundamentally revising the constitutional principles document, moving the date for the Presidential election back to April 2012, clearly commiting to an end to military rule, and putting a stop to the abuse of military courts and emergency law. That would go a long way towards helping make the upcoming elections a positive step towards a democratic Egypt rather than a tragic missed opportunity.
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