Protesters turn their ire on the ruling military
Another tent city is blossoming in Tahrir square in downtown Cairo this week as thousands of Egyptians ready themselves for a massive protest on Friday, which has been dubbed (variously translated) "Friday of the Last Ultimatum," or simply, the "Final Call." The demonstrators have been in the square for nearly a week, urging a faster pace for reforms, an end to military tribunals for civilians, and a speedy exit for the military government as was promised following the ouster of President Mubarak five months ago. Protesters have pitted themselves directly against Egypt's ruling armed forces, and despite significant concessions in the last week, the intensity on both sides has led to speculation that another confrontation could be in the offing.
The demonstrators are not protesting for freedom this time around, but for accountability. They seek justice for the more than 800 Egyptians who were killed by police during the 18-day revolt last February that led to the deposition of former President Hosni Mubarak. They also want the trials of Mubarak and other high level government officials, who are charged with murder, corruption and human rights violations, to proceed at a faster pace.
The demonstrators are chafing at the length of time it has taken the military to bring about the promised reforms and hold elections so that the soldiers can step aside as promised. On Wednesday, the military granted the request of a broad based coalition of political parties -- including the Muslim Brotherhood's front operation, the Freedom and Justice Party -- and will delay elections from September to perhaps December.
In another sop to the demonstrators, the military government announced the firing of 650 police officers who have been accused of participating in the murders. That hasn't assuaged the anger of the demonstrators. Indeed, the army -- once almost universally admired in Egypt for maintaining public order during the chaos of the revolution -- has lost most of the good will it garnered for those efforts as the pace of change has slowed to a crawl. Trials for many Mubarak cronies have not been scheduled, although Mubarak himself is set to go on trial August 3 on murder and corruption charges.
In anticipation of the Friday protests, the military issued an ominous sounding statement on Tuesday that said, in part, "The armed forces . . . call upon the noble citizens to stand against all the protests that impede the return of normal life to the sons of our great people," and that "necessary measures will be taken to confront threats that surround the homeland and affect the citizens and national security."
This angered many of the activists in the square who took the statement to mean that the military would oppose their right to protest. "The demonstrations are also called to protest a statement made by the [ruling] Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [on Tuesday] in which it implicitly warned against continuing protests," said the Union of the Revolution's Youth. “They’re saying we’re thugs so they have an excuse to attack the square," said one protester.
The firing of the police officers was an implicit concession to the protesters, who have been demanding wholesale changes to not only the police, but the judiciary and the entire internal security apparatus as well. It didn't appear to satisfy many of them. One protestor said, "This police shake-up came too late and is not enough. This was one of our main demands three or four months ago."
The Interior Minister, Mansour Al Essawy, claimed that under rules governing the police, he did not have the authority to fire the hundreds of other police who were implicated in the murders. Only high-ranking officers could be fired before their cases were tried, he said. The officers let go were comprised of 505 brigadier generals, 82 colonels and 37 other officers. Others implicated or charged in the crimes would be "transferred to places where they won't deal with people," Essawyo said.
It isn't just the slow pace of reform of the police that has raised the ire of protesters. They have also demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his cabinet. Sharaf does not possess the "revolutionary character to fulfill the ambitions of many Egyptians aiming for freedom and social justice," said one prominent protest group. That may be, but Sharaf is also operating in a political straitjacket. The nation is riven by factionalism and overseen by a military that is jealously guarding its historic prerogatives in government and the economy. If the pace of reform is slow, it is a reflection of the glacial pace of evolution of civil society in a nation that has functioned as a military dictatorship for 60 years.
The postponement of elections is a good example of this evolution. The reason for the delayed vote is to give time to the dozens of political parties who will participate in the election to establish grassroots networks and organize their supporters. Many of the secular parties feared that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had an organized political presence in Egypt for decades, would have too big an advantage in the election, and petitioned the military for the delay. The Brotherhood, for tactical reasons, went along with the postponement, considering the fact that there is a tremendous level of distrust for its motives. Also, the Brotherhood will only be contesting 49% of the seats in parliament. The group also appears to have its own problems, as less fanatical elements are splitting off from the main party, making it more difficult for power to be consolidated.
Sharaf is trying, on the surface at least, to meet some of the protesters' demands. He has promised a cabinet shakeup and has pledged to increase reform efforts, especially in the interior ministry. Already, the deputy prime minister, Yahia Gamal, has resigned, according to the cabinet's website. And on Tuesday, the former interior minister and two other Mubarak-era government officials were sentenced to prison on corruption charges. Mubarak himself, recovering from a heart attack, is preparing for his August trial while claiming his innocence. "These accusations are not true at all. I would never participate in the killing of Egyptian citizens,'' Mubarak told investigators. A government commission found otherwise, accusing the former president of knowing that his security forces were armed with live ammunition and that they would use it on the protesters.
Despite these apparent concessions, the protesters are in no mood to compromise. Several groups have issued a call for elections of a civilian "transitional council" -- perhaps to be headed up by the Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. But the military, in its statement issued earlier in the week, reiterated its support for Sharaf and dismissed calls by the protesters in language that suggests some kind of confrontation might be on the horizon.
The reaction to this protest among ordinary Egyptians is mixed. Thirty men with sticks and knives attacked the protesters earlier in the week, wounding 6 before they were driven off. Most Egyptians appear to be more patient than their brothers in Tarhrir Square, and while sharing the goals of the revolutionaries, it is widely believed that the constant upheaval has affected the economy for the worse -- especially tourism, which is one of the country's biggest industries. While the protesters say they need to constantly pressure the military to make good on its promises, most ordinary Egyptians hope that the situation will stabilize soon so the economy can be given a chance to recover.
That attitude could change in a heartbeat if there is a serious confrontation between the military and the protesters on Friday. The Egyptian people would no doubt take to the streets again in the hundreds of thousands if necessary to protect the rights they have won so far.
“The country is sitting on a barrel of gunpowder,’’ said Hossam El-Hamalawy, an activist and blogger. “The point of confrontation is getting closer and closer.’’
If that is the case, the protests on Friday should be seen as both an opportunity and a warning -- an opportunity for the military and civilian authorities to prove they have matured as a society and will allow peaceful people to assemble and express their views. However, it could also be a warning that if blood flows once again in Tahrir Square, no one will be able to predict where the revolution will go from there.