Déjà vu in Tahrir

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Déjà vu in Tahrir

January 28, 2011 was one of the harshest days of clashes during the Egyptian uprising. Hundreds of thousands of people ended up in Tahrir, battling against the regime, unarmed, while the police fought with tear gas and bullets, producing an eventual death toll of almost 1,000 people. The day was pivotal in the success of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Exactly five months later on June 28th, thousands of protestors returned to Tahrir. So did the police, firing tear gas at unarmed protestors…just as they had done on January 28th.

The clashes last week reveal the deep confusion which now grips Egypt over where to go next, what type of constitution to have, what the military does or does not plan to do vis-à-vis elections, what steps are or are not being taken over bringing elements of the former regime to justice, what moves are happening to alter the deep inequality that exists between the rich and the poor…and more. This unresolved confusion was, and still is, just waiting to bubble over into conflict. For disaster to be averted, Egypt’s leaders, both those at present and those who will hopefully take over in September, must move decisively to answer these urgent questions.

The military, which is the backbone of all authority in Egypt at the moment, values stability above all else. That is why it entered the fray in the first place, why they eventually forced Mubarak from power, and why they are moving slowly down the road of reform. A wide mass of Egyptians, perhaps even the majority, are willing to give the authorities a wide berth because the military is widely popular with the Egyptian people. This is also because they are most occupied with security and the economic situation, which they do not think can be solved without supporting the military. Their deference to the military should not, however, be interpreted as satisfaction with the speed of revolutionary measures by the regime.

Recent clashes erupted once more on June 28. Families of the “martyrs of the uprising” were protesting at Maspero in downtown Cairo, where they had been for a few days with hardly any attention. They learned of a celebration of the martyrs in nearby Agouza, and marched down to participate. Upon arrival, they were denied entry by security. As a result, some of them jumped the fence, demanding to get in — and the police responded with brutal, though non-lethal, force. Reacting to this treatment of the families of the fallen, some activists went to the Ministry of the Interior, not too far from Tahrir, to protest. The police and central security forces (CSF) began clashing with them — again, violently. And then, all mayhem broke out.

People began to descend on Tahrir for many different reasons. For some, it was a chance to defend the honour of the families of the martyrs. For others, it was an opportunity to strike back at the security forces — forces that are still incredibly unpopular in this country. For others, it was because their friends were there, and they wanted to stand by them. For others still, it was because this was hallowed ground — and never again would the police be given the chance to think that Egyptian civilians would allow the rule of police brutality to run Tahrir Square.

It seemed the police also had a variety of intentions for being there. The sorts of things that were being said over the loudspeakers bore little resemblance to a general crowd control exercise. They were verbally insulting the protestors as they physically assaulted them with tear gas. For many there, that kind of behaviour smacked of revenge for the victory against them during the uprising. Outside of Tahrir in other cities, protests were taking place (on smaller scales) in solidarity.

Wednesday saw some more clashes, but by the early evening, the square had quietened down. At least 600 people were reportedly injured, several dead, and the amount of tear gas (incidentally, still American-made, which did not go unnoticed by the protestors) in and around the area was immense; even the remnants of it in some places was debilitating. The interim government and the military both issued statements claiming that responsibility for the clashes lay with the protestors, and that the police and security forces were acting with wisdom and restraint.

Thursday was generally uneventful (with many going to Alexandria to wait for the then delayed verdict in the highly publicised Khaled Said court case), and while Friday attracted hundreds of people to express solidarity with those who had clashed with the police on Wednesday, it was not an enormous protest. Neither was Tuesday itself, by new Egyptian protest standards.

Clearly, there is a divide between the authorities and the protestors. But how do the rest of Egyptian society feel about what is happening? Dissatisfaction with the speed of reform is definitely felt across Egypt. Will that dissatisfaction translate into support for new protests, or will a new wave of demonstrations begin to alienate people who still support the military and fear the growing economic burden of instability?

One has to remember that July 8th has been planned, for some time, to be the big rally. The lack of wide-scale participation in the protests last week is being interpreted in some quarters as ‘revving up’ for a large protest this Friday, and this has been done for a variety of reasons. Much of the Egyptian media has been reporting that people will descend onto Tahrir to demand a constitution before elections, which is a significant demand of much of the liberal camp in Egypt. Many of the new, small political parties are arguing along the same lines, yet it is unclear if that is a demand that the majority of the Egyptian masses want, as the referendum in March implied the contrary. The Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful voice against the “constitution first” camp, and is now arguing that such a move would constitute a betrayal of the peoples’ democratic will. Increasingly, however, political analysts are voicing doubts about whether or not these constitution or elections first arguments actually animate the Egyptian masses.

Nevertheless, early indications suggest that people will come out on Friday, but it won’t be for the cause of having the constitution written up first, second or last. It will be an expression of anger at the slowness of the revolution. It may also be driven by anger that the reformation of this police force has not been remotely accomplished. The police have been incredibly unpopular for many years, owing to their unchecked brutality — and there is a widely held perception among Egyptians that the police showed that characteristic yet again in the protests last week. The Egyptian citizenry want the police force to serve the people at large, and they want those officers who shot at protestors to be brought to account.

Fridays in Egypt often dictate the direction of the revolution — the tell-tale signs in the protests indicate something about public opinion, and the authorities do respond to what they believe will assuage the masses. Over the coming few days, we may see what they intend to do — the military have frequently issued statements on the Wednesday and Thursday before a protest to try to dampen dissatisfaction. They may do so again this week, but if last week is any indication of what’s to come, there is a core group that views the military as an obstacle to reform, rather than a vehicle for it. If the military wants to keep that perception from becoming more and more widespread, they are going to have to take more radical steps. One suspects that they know this, but are perhaps calculating that the public mood will be on their side. They may be right, but it’s not necessarily a guaranteed state of affairs.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and the Institute for Social and Understanding, currently based out of Cairo.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy.

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