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

Does public opinion (or the silent majority) matter? The commentariat in Egypt and abroad places a lot of weight on the public opinion that is skeptical of protest, and always was -- before January 25, during the initial uprising, and now. These voices, which are loud and important in Egypt, are apt to believe official protestations of "foreign agents," "hidden hands," or "secret agendas," and quick to blame protests for destabilizing the country or hurting its economy, even if there's no evidence to support that belief. While this view gets trotted out a lot, especially on Egyptian state television, it's unclear whether it represents a force with any power in Egypt. This year, only a few forces have had any effect at all on politics: the army, the police, the ex-ruling party, the Islamists, and persistent street protesters. Arguably, liberal and other organized political parties have played a bit role. Note that none of these actors represents a huge swathe of society, with the exception of the Islamists. All of them have shaped events this year.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood dominating politics or discrediting itself? The Brotherhood has played hardball politics. It started the current cycle with a massive demonstration on Friday, but pulled out before it got violent. It condemned the protesters for being too provocative, but then also condemned the police for being too violent. It has demanded a fixed timetable for the election of a civilian president by April 2012, but it has stopped short of endorsing an immediate handover to a civilian council. It has suspended its election campaign, but says a delay in the elections -- in which it is positioned to do better than any other party -- would amount to a "soft coup." In short, it looks as if the Brotherhood wants to appear in tune with the street while not alienating the generals who rule Egypt. Smart politics, but irritating to activists, including the thousands of Brotherhood members in Tahrir despite the official organization position. One Brotherhood supporter I talked to in the square last night said he'd had it with the official waffling. "They're never standing with us when we're attacked, but then they show up after the fighting is over to reap the political benefit," he said.

How does it end? I see three possible scenarios. In the first, the military eventually clears the square using brute force, and deploying enough troops to keep it empty of protesters after driving it out. Such a move could kill hundreds, and risks further destabilizing the country, but could pay off for the military if it ends protests and satisfies the law-and-order constituency. The second scenario, the military bottles up the square, lets people protest, ignores their demands, and lets elections proceed. This works only if crowds remain in the tens of thousands. It's probably not a long-term sustainable resolution. The third and final scenario is the one in which, true to pattern, the generals crack under pressure and fight the last war, giving in to previous demands only once the crowd has moved on to bigger ones. In this scenario, the military agrees to replace the cabinet, or schedule presidential elections, only after a crowd incensed by dozens of needless deaths has moved on to demanding an immediate and full transfer of power to a civilian authority.