6 Key Questions on Egypt's Escalating Violence

As protesters demand the military rulers allow civilian rule, how will generals respond?

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Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square / Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt -- I'm about to head back out to Tahrir Square, where the martial and political terrain has been shifting mercurially for days. In recent hours, the military has tried to instigate a truce between demonstrators and police, while some key political actors have called for an immediate transfer of power to a civilian council. The April 6 youth movement proposed a council that would include the secular Mohamed ElBaradei and the Islamists Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, a judge named Zakaria Abdul Aziz, and possibly a representative of the military.

Some thoughts, as we watch developments, on the key questions or mysteries facing Egypt in this uncertain moment:

What is the military's objective here? The ruling generals played their hand a few weeks earlier, demanding legal guarantees of their own independence and power in any new system. The military clearly wants elections to go forward so there can be a choreographed transitional process that placates the public without diminishing military power. So why allow violence to spiral out of control for four days? The military certainly has the muscle to step between the demonstrators and the police. No one has offered a compelling explanation for why the military hasn't stopped the fighting in Tahrir. Many observers posit that the military simply can't figure out what it wants and isn't competent enough to enforce minimal order.

Who controls the police? Egypt's detested police were never disbanded or held to account, including the secret police, which were simply renamed "homeland security" instead of "state security." On Saturday, they sparked Cairo's still-ongoing fight by attacking a tiny group of holdover demonstrators who stayed overnight in Tahrir, beating them gratuitously even by Egyptian standards. Were they out of control, bent on revenge after their humiliating rout at the hand of revolutionaries in January? Were they intentionally trying to create problems for their rivals in the military? Or were they acting on orders from Egypt's military rulers, who appear to approve of police brutality but don't want to be the ones in the front hurting civilians? No one has a clear answer to this very important question.

Does it matter if elections are postponed? Sure, elections are an important step, canvassing public opinion for the first time since the revolt against Mubarak, and potentially setting forth a transition to a constitutional, civilian democracy. But the entire process is taking place by fiat, under the heavy manipulation of the junta. All year, liberal forces, including Mohamed ElBaradei and his National Association for Change, have been calling for a lengthy constitutional drafting process first, and then parliamentary elections. Everything in Egypt so far has taken place outside the law, including nearly six decades of emergency rule by military dictators. It's silly to pretend there's no path to civilian rule other than elections. The military, under pressure and by fiat, could turn over power to a civilian technocrat during a transition period. Or, it could hold presidential elections immediately -- in a month, say -- and then allow the parliamentary elections and drafting of a constitution to take place under that president's authority. Not a single demonstrator I interviewed in Tahrir cared one way or another about the parliamentary elections. Most of them were content to see elections go ahead on Monday, figuring that they don't affect the more important struggle, which is to force the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to surrender power

Presented by

Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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