Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Egypt

We have a two for one special today. Here, in this blog post, both Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson, separately, offer their takes on the latest developments in Egypt. Yohanes leads off, then is followed by Brad.

Back to Tahrir Square
by Yohanes Sulaiman

Nine months after the fall of Mubarak, Egypt is again engulfed in riots and violence. This time, rather than embracing the army, protesters condemn the military and demand that Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of the military regime, step down.

Instead of learning a few "lessons" from the fall of Mubarak, which should be either to let the protesters protest in peace, thus exhausting them, or to decisively crack down on them "Tienanmen Style," the military is vacillating: it's doing too little and taking half-measures. The military brutally attacked the protesters, but was unable or unwilling to completely disperse them.

At the same time, the military also give some concessions, though not as much as the people want, therefore angering them further. Plus, the unwillingness to crack down and the concessions, along with divisions inside the ruling elite, create the impression that the regime is weakening.

The question is how could this happen? How could the most organized and revered institution in Egypt fall so far from the public's favor in a matter of months?

First, the military is no seen longer as an independent guardian of nation, but as a political player. Back in January, people did believe that the military was on their side. After all, it was the military that helped to nudge Mubarak from the scene, and it was the military that tended to shield the protesters in Tahrir Square from thugs and hooligans. Yet, months after that, with the military seemingly growing closer to the Ikhwanul Muslimin (Moslem Brotherhood), the military is now seen as more interested in protecting its perks, rather than truly committed to political and economic reform.

The Coptic protests on October was probably an inadvertent wake-up call for the rest of the Egyptian community. Then, it was evident that the military was more interested in saving its own skin than building a truly pluralistic society. The state-run Channel One TV even goaded the country to engage in religious warfare.

If an institution that everyone relies on for stability and unity engages in politicking and religion-baiting, then why should anyone trust it?

At this point, there are simply no good options for Egyptians. The liberals, secularists and the Copts will be totally crushed politically should elections be held as scheduled. The Moslem Brotherhood itself is split, between the old generation hoping to continue pursuing a profitable and politically beneficial alliance with the military and the young generation that truly desires a democratic pluralistic nation. The army is no longer seen as a benign institution that's mostly interested in what's good for Egypt. The risk that the revolution will eventually be hijacked by extremist Salafis or the army is getting higher.

Not surprisingly, people feel betrayed. Disillusioned with both the military and the politicians, they decided to return to the Tahrir Square.

You Say You Want a Revolution...
by Brad Nelson

I'm certainly not shocked that we've seen outbursts of conflict and violence under the watch of Egypt's military. Despite its current role in Egyptian politics and its longstanding role in influencing the political landscape, Egypt's military isn't filled with seasoned politicians. The Egyptian military isn't an entity trained to carry out effective, diplomatic conflict resolution between people and groups. It's trained to crush opponents via force and other coercive techniques. This is what makes sense to the military, it's what they know. And it has worked, as it propped up Hosni Mubarak for years. Besides, let's face it, the military leaders were groomed, and likely learned all their lessons, in a brutal era that prized heavy-handedness, even violence, as a means of subduing the politically unruly. Combined, these factors likely cultivated an inclination to go hard rather soft against irritants, opponents, criminals, etc.

One might argue that technically it has been Egypt's internal security forces, not the military, that has waged violence against the people. True enough, but the military has let the security forces have their way, letting them commit crimes in an unimpeded fashion. The military hasn't put a stop to the violence; it has been a complicit actor. In this way, the military has signaled that it tacitly supports brutality against Egyptian citizens. Indeed, it's likely the military has apologized for recent events only because it now faces heavy internal (the protest movement is gathering steam again) and external pressure (from the internal community, especially the U.S.), not because it believes the violence is wrong and unacceptable.

I'm still somewhat optimistic about the direction of Egyptian politics. The best sign is that the protest movement can put its followers in the streets when there's a call for action. Sure, the revolutionary fervor might have lost some steam, but it hasn't completely sputtered out. After all, there is still enough anger and disappointment to galvanize hundred thousand Egyptians into Tahrir Square. This is crucial. For the people's pro-democratic, pro-reform efforts and energies will keep Egyptian authorities in line (as they will help to reduce corruption, prioritize transparency, eliminate the stringent policing tactics, and ensure that Egypt remains on the path toward democracy). Right now, it is this revolutionary spirit that functions as the main, perhaps sole, bulwark against retrogressive elements in the government and state.

When we take a step back and look at the events in Egypt since Mubarak's fall, we see a repeated cycle of events: the military rulers make an unpopular decision or refuse to make a popular decision; the people seethe and eventually take to Tahrir

This time, after the latest round of protests and violence, more concessions were made. The cabinet has resigned. Parliamentary elections will be held next week. Presidential elections will be conducted no later than next June. And there are rumblings of the military turning over power to a "national salvation" government. Will these things completely satisfy public demands? Of course not. But they are signs, maybe if only small signs, of progress.

But beware: many dangers loom ahead. Here's a few things to consider for the future.

1. How long can the reformers sustain their revolutionary spirit?

2. Can moderate political actors, organized political groups, and political parties get their act together quickly enough to be a major player in Egyptian politics? Can they generate the kind of support that allows them to balance extremist, radical political groups and actors?

3. What kind of tricks do former NDP officials have up their sleeves?

4. Can the faction of radical Islamists be kept in check?

5. Is there sufficient, effective policing to prevent thugs and criminals from instigating trouble?

6. How far is the military willing to go to protect its interests (political power, commercial assets, access to perks, and so on)?

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