For Egyptians, a New Foe and a New Revolution

By Thanassis Cambanis

This weekend's enormous protests and violent crackdown -- both some of the largest since Mubarak's ouster -- have changed Egypt's still-struggling revolution in several fundamental ways

cambanis nov21 p.jpg

Security forces in Tahrir Square on Sunday stand around what appear to be the bodies of several young men / Twitpic

CAIRO, Egypt -- The spasm of state violence here over the weekend marks one of two things: either an entrenchment of military dictatorship, or the long-deferred resumption of the January 25 uprising. The unusually large demonstrations that began on Friday in protest of the military's tightening hold on power were met with violence from security forces and the military itself. Though the clashes are still ongoing, the nature of Egypt's new military rulers and its struggling revolution appear already to have changed in fundamental ways.

The "Friday of One Demand," orchestrated by the Islamists, who have sat out most of the year's demonstrations, drew some of the biggest crowds seen in Tahrir since the original uprising that ousted Mubarak. Tens of thousands of the usual secular demonstrators joined hundreds of thousands of Salafis and Muslim Brothers.

"We are here to continue the revolution for a civil state," said Adel Hamed, a former member of parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood. "No one is above the law, including the army."

All year, secular liberals have accused the Brotherhood -- the most powerful political party in the country -- of playing footsy with the military. Finally, however, the Brothers broke with the military over the legal role of the armed forces, rather than, as many expected, over whether Egypt would be defined as a secular state.

Demonstrators from across the spectrum stayed on script on Friday, all demanding that the military honor its promise to leave power. Fringe elements, like the jihadis who waved photos of Osama bin Laden, were jeered even by fundamentalist Salafist protesters. When some zealous Islamists chanted for sharia, they were silenced by their peers.

"It only feels a little bit like Kandahar," joked secular activist Rami ElSaid, from the April 6 movement. "I am happy about today."

At nightfall, that unity frayed and snapped: the Islamists packed up and went home, leaving only a small number of secular activists to sit in overnight in the square, still demanding that the military agree to surrender power to an elected civilian president by April 2012.

Police smashed into a corner of the square on Saturday morning, beating the protesters that remained. The group was so small it wasn't even impeding traffic, and it was attracting almost no attention. The police response did, however, and by midday Tahrir was a war zone. On Saturday evening, the police cleared the square after a day of shooting people with rubber pellets, often in the face, blinding several, and enveloping the entire square in tear gas. Within an hour, the crowd had reoccupied the square. On Sunday, the military joined the charge, clearing the square in concert with police just after nightfall. Again, within an hour, demonstrators had retaken Tahrir.

The toll as of Monday morning, according to the Ministry of Health: at least 2,000 injured, a minimum of 20 dead according to the Health Ministry, and Egypt's parliamentary elections in jeopardy.

These clashes have felt different, however, from others since Mubarak's resignation.

For starters, the police were clearly aiming at people's faces, unleashing a constant barrage of rubber bullets and pellets along with the more customary tear gas. Doctors said they found live ammunition in many of the dead, despite government denials that its security forces are using real bullets. Unlike previous clashes, the military and police worked together to fight the demonstrators, most obviously in the Sunday evening assault on the thousands in Tahrir. And a potent mix of people were willing to fight the increasingly nasty police: poor kids and rich kids, seasoned activists and people who'd never been to a demonstration before, bearded Islamists and secular women.

The determination of the crowds is unlike anything I've seen here since the original uprising, when wave after wave of demonstrators overpowered riot police and subsequently stood firm under an orchestrated attack by gunmen and cavalry on horses and camels.

Demonstrators have spent all day and all night, for two days running, charging the police until the protesters become overwhelmed, wounded, or arrested. They regroup in the rear, and then charge again.

"We will never again trust the people who talked rather than fought," said Ahmed Abdorabo, a long-time activist who had joined the Revolutionary Youth Coalition earlier this year but quit in disgust. It was long after midnight, his eyes were rimmed red from the gas, and he looked like he'd been in a dozen bar fights. "Elections are nothing. We must finish our revolution first."

Most revolutionary candidates have suspended their parliamentary election campaigns, but the canny players have not. The Salafi Noor party scheduled rallies, as did the Muslim Brothers and the secular Social Democratic Party. Their eyes were still on the prize, although even those parties that had opposed the weekend sit-in went out of their way to condemn the state's violent response.

The Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, echoed regime propaganda when he referred to "perverse plots" against the nation (state television has been talking all weekend about "hidden hands," falsely describing demonstrators rather than police as the aggressors). But he used strong language against the state, in a departure from his usual tone.

"I reject the forceful ending of the peaceful protests in Tahrir and escalated assaults on individuals and private and public property," Badie said. "There should be no more bloodshed in Egypt."

Critics in Tahrir Square, including disaffected members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had joined the sit-in despite their organization's refusal to do so officially, said the Islamists were opportunistically trying to reap political benefits from the upheaval, first siding with the government by calling for restraint by the demonstrators, and then siding with the demonstrators once they were attacked.

It's easy to forget that what concessions Egypt's uprising has wrested from the regime, it has done so through hard-headed fighting. The regime ruled, historically, through violence, and it only flinched after January 25 when common people fought back against the police. Mubarak resigned because for 18 days, people in Tahrir Square succeeded at the urban equivalent of holding a hilltop.

Naturally, the military could clear the current protesters out if its leaders decided to use full military force. It's not impossible -- the military already did this once, in front of Maspero, the state media headquarters, in October, when 27 peaceful marchers were killed). Short of a decision to kill great numbers of unarmed Egyptians, however, the state finds itself in a bind, hoping it can intimidate people into quiescence. The new leaders of Egypt, it seems, are willing to negotiate only when beaten on the street, and never when approached in a political forum.

Through the fog of tear gas, a few things have become clear on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and the other cities where unarmed protesters have been savagely shot. These appear to be some of the new realities of Egypt after November 18.

First, the military and the police, long rivals for power, are now working in tandem to crush popular protest, no matter what tensions may have existed, or still exist, between them.

Second, a groundswell of rage still simmers among a broad swathe of Egyptians, who returned to Tahrir Square this weekend in numbers not seen since Mubarak resigned on February 11. They gathered in the same genuine, diverse mix as before: poor, apolitical, activist, Islamist, secular, anarchist, soccer fan, middle-aged mother or father, and so on. Egyptians have not given up.

Third, Egypt's post-Mubarak military rulers, who have been slowly backsliding into authoritarianism, truly seem to have no coherent plan. Over the last month, however, they've revealed their biggest demand and thus their vision for the new Egypt: a constitution that guarantees complete political autonomy and legal impunity for the military, while reserving for the army the authority to set national security policy. Effectively, the military's proposals would put it completely beyond the authority of any civilian government.

Fourth, even if elections occur as scheduled, they are unlikely to clearly map the political preferences of Egyptians. Carryover favorites like the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party (Mubarak's National Democratic Party), plus cash-rich Salafists, are poised to do best in the parliamentary elections that begin a week from today, on November 28. None of the new parties established since Mubarak left office have mustered the funds or organizational capacity to market themselves. Yet, given the events of the past few days, those new parties appear to represent more Egyptians than their poor standings in the polls might suggest.

Finally, the notion that Egypt was heading for a real transition to civilian rule is imperiled, if not completely in tatters. Right now, according to the military-backed transition plan, a civilian president with any real authority will not be elected until some undefined time within approximately two years. And the military has made clear that it intends to control the entire political transition process, including, most importantly, the writing of the constitution.

"This," as one enraged demonstrator told me in Tahrir Square this weekend, "is not what we fought for."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/11/for-egyptians-a-new-foe-and-a-new-revolution/248781/