Cairo/Brussels | 23 Nov 2011
The brutal crackdown on demonstrators that has once again shaken Tahrir Square and unleashed protests across Egypt is tragic, yet it also offers a rare chance to get the transition process back on track precisely at the time when there was every indication it was set to derail.
The demonstrators’ message is clear: power must immediately devolve from the military to a credible, empowered civilian authority. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), persuaded it retains the support of a majority of the people, has tended to respond to pressure incrementally, giving in only after having resisted and then giving in some more. A far wiser course for the authorities and for the country as a whole would be to let the political parties fundamentally revisit the transitional process. Violence against protesters must come to an end, the security sector also needs to come under clear civilian rule, and those guilty of abuses should be brought to account. Anything short of that – tinkering with the process in an effort to calm things down or kicking crucial decisions down the road – is almost certain to confront the military with intense opposition in the near future, at a time when it could well be in a far weaker position to handle it.
The latest chapter in Egypt’s ongoing crisis began on 19 November, when Central Security Forces (CSF), in collaboration with the military police, stormed Tahrir Square in an attempt to forcefully clear a sit-in of dozens of people, most of whom had been injured during the 25 January uprising. The ensuing outburst reflects more than anger at the security services’ disproportionate response. It is the product, too, of accumulated frustrations and distrust that have come to shape the perceptions of virtually all political players and that the military, confident in the support it enjoys from ordinary Egyptians, chose to ignore.
The protesters have had good reason to worry about where the SCAF was taking the nation. Its actions since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February – refusing to offer a transparent timetable for the transition of power to elected civilian authorities; delaying presidential elections until as late as mid-2013; unilaterally assuming sweeping legislative and executive powers; and condoning continued resort to torture and other human rights violations – suggest at best incompetence and indecision, at worst a deliberate attempt to indefinitely hold on to power.
Moreover, since the SCAF took over, upwards of ten thousand civilians have been tried before military courts, many on politically-motivated grounds, and violent crackdowns on protests – most notably the 9 October Coptic demonstration at Maspiro – have resulted in dozens of civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries. During that period, the military leadership has oscillated between catering to Islamists and playing to secularist fears, all the while seeming intent to preserve or even expand the military’s political role and economic prerogatives.
All in all, the SCAF has done little to inspire confidence in its stewardship and much to instill fear that it was determined not to hand over genuine power to a truly democratic civilian authority.
Many Egyptians no doubt continue to hold the SCAF in high regard, and many blame economic hardships and enduring chaos on the protesters, with whom they have grown impatient. The SCAF has wagered on this sentiment, but its bet appears to have been shortsighted. For now, it is apparent that whatever the so-called silent majority might think, it cannot protect the SCAF from a determined, energised constituency for whom the fate of the revolution is paramount. These politically active groups still retain considerable ability to bring both hundreds of thousands to the streets and Cairo to a standstill.
The key to resolving te present crisis and minimising risks of a repeat is to quickly transfer power from the military to credible civilian authorities, namely an interim government acceptable to the political parties and protest movement that would assume the SCAF’s executive and legislative powers and exercise genuine control over the security services. The new government should have the ability to review the transition’s timetable and process. These powers should be conferred through a SCAF-issued constitutional declaration. In turn, this interim government would give way to one born out of the parliamentary elections, the first round of which is scheduled for 28 November, with final results expected only by late March.
There are valid arguments as to why elections cannot be held that early given ongoing violence and instability. But a postponement – at least without a consensus among political parties – could prove far more costly. It would further fuel concern about the SCAF’s intentions, further split the opposition, and antagonise the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which almost certainly would see this as an attempt to rob it of its expected strong showing. As for presidential elections, they should be moved up and held as soon as feasible.
The SCAF has sent some encouraging signals. After some hesitation, it has indicated the current crisis must be addressed politically and inclusively, rather than escalating the confrontation, hunkering down, exclusively blaming foreign agitators or making token concessions. In talks with some political parties, it agreed to carry out parliamentary elections on schedule, hold presidential elections by 30 June, dismiss the current government and appoint a “national salvation” cabinet. It needs to do more. Not only must it live up to these commitments but it also must move quickly and agree that the new cabinet enjoys the powers described above.
Other measures are essential to restore trust. Ending the violence, reining in security forces, holding them accountable and allowing peaceful protests is a good place to begin. At this writing, attacks by security forces against protesters have yet to end, even after the SCAF’s meeting with political parties and even after Prime Minister Essam Sharaf ordered those forces to halt their assault.
Political groups also have a responsibility: to seek as wide a consensus as possible on a political vision for the transfer of power to civilian rule as well as for the new government’s mandate.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the SCAF’s ad hoc, vacillating reactions to protests over the past several months, it is that fragmentary responses to popular discontent are not the way to go. They seldom satisfy the demonstrators. They embolden the opposition. And they are almost always but the first step before more thorough concessions for which the SCAF, far from being given credit, is blamed for having dragged its feet.
Egypt’s transition is bound to be rocky, given the legacy of decades of authoritarian rule, resistance by elements of the ancien régime, The military’s fears of losing its prerogatives and the political parties’ alarm that it will hold on to them, as well as the nation’s oversized social and economic challenges. But getting this step right at this juncture could put the transition on a more stable, confident and legitimate path.