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Cairo jumps the rails

Egypt erupted in violence over the weekend as protestors and police battled once again for control of Tahrir Square.  Genuinely shocking brutality by Egyptian security forces has left at least 22 dead and many hundreds wounded.  The chaos, still ongoing a week before the scheduled beginning of Parliamentary elections, has thrown Egypt's already extremely shaky political transition into doubt. It is not likely the second coming of the Egyptian revolution of which many enthusiastic participants and outside onlookers dream. But it shows with painful clarity the costs of the incompetence of Egypt's military leadership and the urgency of a rapid transition to civilian rule. 

The violence began at a moment when there were rare reasons for guarded optimism. On Friday, Islamist forces including the Muslim Brotherhood  had organized a massive, well-disciplined demonstration against the document on constitutional principles released in the late days of the Parliamentary election campaign and seemed designed to maintain the military's hold on effective state power long into the future. The Islamists and a range of other political forces had focused their protest on clear, political demands to speed the transition to civilian rule.  All three elements which have generally pushed the SCAF to make necessary political concessions seemed to have fallen into place: masses in the streets, an elite political consensus, and American pressure. 

But then things went wrong astonishingly quickly. The Islamists and most other participants in the demonstration left Tahrir at the end of the rally. A few hundred people, mostly (it seems) families of the martyrs of the January 25 revolution and veterans of past Tahrir occupations, decided to launch a new sit-in.  This does not seem to have been coordinated with the political strategy of the day's demonstration.  The move risked going down the same path as the July 8 demonstration, an originally successful rally which squandered its gains with a wildly unpopular occupation of Tahrir. 

But then Egyptian security forces, acting on authority which remains murky, moved in with extreme force to drive out the small group attempting to occupy Tahrir.  Their over the top violence, including massive tear gas and highly abusive police behavior, seems to have then attracted the attention of the core of Egyptian activists who came running to join the fight.  Instead of rapidly clearing the square, the security forces found themselves locked in an epic running battle with thousands of protestors.  The momentum shifted repeatedly, with protestors holding the square and then being driven out and then returning.  The security forces used massive amounts of tear gas, brute force, and weapons.  That battle rages on. 

Many people see the battle for Tahrir as a second coming of the crucial first four days of the January 25 Egyptian revolution which will re-ignite a popular uprising.  It probably is not.  The distancing of the activist core from mainstream opinion has been developing for many months, particularly since the July occupation of Tahrir. The response across Cairo outside of Tahrir itself thus far appears to range from indifference to antipathy. The SCAF remains broadly popular with the public, even if it has lost elite support. Egyptian state television's irresponsible, heavy-handed pro-regime framing of the events has also likely played a role.  But whatever the case, the fighting has thus far remained limited to the same activist core.  If it had only been a few thousand people in Tahrir in January, they would have been easily defeated.  It was the millions which made the difference. While there have been rallies in support of the protestors in Alexandria and several other locations, in general those millions this time do not seem ready to join.

The effect on the Parliamentary elections which were supposed to begin next week is catastrophic.  The SCAF insists that it plans to go ahead with the elections despite the chaos. If it postpones them it risks the ire of both the Islamists and the international community, and would come under justifiable suspicion of having manufactured the events in order to torpedo the electoral process.  But it is equally almost impossible to imagine orderly, legitimate elections under these conditions. Some liberal candidates and activist lists (albeit mostly those not running many, or any, candidates) have suspended their campaigns and many are talking now of boycott. 

The chaos this weekend demonstrates as clearly as possible the costs of SCAF incompetence.  Its continued reliance on emergency law and military trials has preserved an air of unaccountable state abuses. It has not offered a clear plan for its promised transition to civilian rule, with its current plan postponing Presidential elections well into 2013 (or, as many fear, never).  The Parliamentary elections have been saddled with an abysmally confusing electoral law and chaotic oversight and planning. And its massively disproportionate use of force against protestors should draw severe criticism from the United States and from the international community.  

I don't expect that the Tahrir fighting is going to spark a second popular revolution, but  I could easily be wrong.  The situtation is extremely turbulent, and things could change quickly, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood decides to join in. I will be looking for signs of a cascade of ordinary people joining the protests, which I'm not yet seeing in the reporting. But neither the SCAF nor the international community should take that as a sign that the crisis has passed.  As long as the SCAF continues along its current path, such chaos will be ready to ignite at any random spark. I have been as vocal a supporter of the electoral path as anyone, but right now even if they still seem necessary they are clearly not sufficient to get Egypt on track. 

Now is a time for the Egyptian political elite to unify -- Islamist and non-Islamist, elite and popular -- around clear demands for a speedy political transition to civilian rule. Protestors, bloody and mourning their dead, will not be satisfied with minor political concessions.  Nor should anyone who cares about Egypt's success. Those should include early Presidential elections, an end to emergency law and the abuse of military courts, ceasing efforts to entrench military power in the new constitution, and accountability for those in the Ministry of Interior and security forces responsible for the violence and an end to impunity.  I'm skeptical about the specifics of the Baradei proposal, the immediate appointment of a civilian government (presumably headed by Baradei), since such a government would lack popular legitimacy -- but we should all be open to such dramatic ideas. The Obama administration should throw its weight behind those demands as well -- forcefully, clearly, and publicly. 

Photo courtesy of Lauren E. Bohn

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