Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are streaming into Tahrir Square today protesting the massive violence over the weekend and demanding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) transfer power to a civilian government. With huge numbers in Tahrir, it is difficult to see how this ends without major political changes: violence now by the regime will almost certainly backfire badly, while token concessions won't satisfy the mobilized crowd. The costs of the SCAF's incompetence have now become impossible to ignore, or to overcome. The Parliamentary elections which last week seemed the only workable route to a democratic transition have been overtaken by events -- and it's time for everyone to readjust.
Yesterday I argued that the battle for Tahrir could go in two directions and that I would be looking for signs that ordinary Egyptians were joining activists in large numbers. If the battle remained limited to the activist core, and failed to attract large numbers of ordinary Egyptians in support, then it would become a replay of the July battles and the SCAF would likely win. It could only become a second revolutionary moment if large numbers, hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands, joined in. And there were good reasons to think that they would not. For four months following the end of the July sit-in, activist calls for protest had produced only small numbers, and there was widespread public antipathy to the protests. The Muslim Brotherhood-led protest on Friday was the first really major demonstration since July. But today we are seeing very clearly that ordinary people are joining into the Tahrir demonstration en masse. We are back on the revolutionary road.
So what happened? From what I can tell, the gratuitous, massive violence used by Egyptian security forces over the weekend was the trigger. As we've seen again and again, shocking regime violence accomplished what general political grievances, discontent, and activists alone can not. New media again mattered, as the regime could not prevent the circulation on the internet and on satellite TV of graphic images and videos of the police beating protestors, shooting into crowds, and deploying massive tear gas. Whether the force was ordered by a rogue Ministry of the Interior (as many believe) or by the SCAF itself hardly matters at this point. The government of interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has already resigned, but few seem to care. Thanks to the massive popular move back to Tahrir, more fundamental change is the only way forward.
The new situation has to force all of us to rethink our positions. That includes me. I have been arguing for months in favor of Parliamentary elections as the only way to begin to build strong institutions with democratic legitimacy to hold the SCAF accountable. I still believe that this was the right position under the conditions of the last few months. But those arguments have been overtaken by events. It is almost impossible to imagine how meaningful, legitimate elections could be held in less than a week at a time of open battles in the center of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities. Many political forces have suspended their campaigns, and few voters are focused on the election. It is unlikely that a body elected under these conditions will command real legitimacy. As much as it pains me to come to this conclusion, and for all my fears that this will only lead to a longer-term delay in a democratic transition or become an excuse to exclude Islamists, it probably does now make sense to postpone the elections for a short period.
But postponing the elections only makes sense if the SCAF can be forced to agree to a much more dramatic and immediate transfer of power to a civilian government, with clear commitments to overseeing a rapid move towards elections. The crowds in Tahrir want to see fundamental change, and now is the chance to get it. That doesn't mean the appointment of a new government with a vague mandate for change, which would simply provide cover for continuing SCAF rule. Just appointing, say, Mohamed el-Baradei to Sharaf's position would only repeat past mistakes. There are rumors flying everywhere in Egypt right now -- that Tantawi will hand over power to the head of the Constitutional Court, that the SCAF will appoint a new government, that Baradei will be handed the reins, and more. I don't think anyone really knows yet -- including the SCAF.
What's really needed is the immediate formation of a civilian government with real power, with the SCAF pulling back from governing and with an iron-clad commitment to Presidential elections by the middle of next year. This interim government has to include significant representation for all trends, including the Islamists. This is an idea which I have resisted in the past because an appointed government would command little popular legitimacy and would be seen as a power grab, an end-run around democracy by politicians who couldn't win at the ballot box. But once again, conditions have changed. The SCAF clearly can not manage this transition, and the massive violence under its oversight should cost it the legitimacy to rule.
It's worth remembering that even if the SCAF steps down, the deep divides and suspicions in Egypt won't quickly fade. There is already great resentment over the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to not officially join today's Tahrir demonstration. Political movements mistrust each other and have different priorities and demands. Islamists are still going to do well whenever elections are finally held. The experience of the post-Mubarak era should prevent anyone from assuming that anything will be easy. But the experience of ten months of incompetent SCAF rule should also make clear that it will be more likely to succeed under different management.
The U.S. has been largely invisible in the rapidly unfolding events, unfortunately. It has been engaging with the SCAF behind the scenes, but that private diplomacy clearly can not satisfy the Egyptian public. The administration's careful comments thus far, calling for restraint on all sides and for continuing a transition to democracy, have lagged well behind events and likely reflect internal disagreement about how to proceed. That has to change, and quickly. President Obama considers Egypt a high priority and understands the importance of the U.S. playing a constructive role. Now is the time to act on that commitment, before it's too late.
The administration must be far more publicly vocal in condeming the regime's violence against protestors -- particularly in light of its definition of such violence against civilians as a red line across the region in places such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. And it needs to communicate in private to the SCAF that the use of violence risks a fundamental rupture in relations with the U.S., and that the weekend's horrors will not permit a return to business as usual. And it needs to more clearly recognize the urgency and opportunity of this moment to break with the difficult, tortuous process of the past ten months and move to something which offers a better chance to get Egypt's democratic transition right.
Al-Jazeera screen shot, November 22, 2011