November 24, 2011
TSG Atmospheric: Egypt: The Bitter Chill of the Arab Winter?
The Soufan Group has been watching the violence in Egypt with growing concern, as it threatens not only sub-regional security, but also regional security. The whole Fertile Crescent has been volatile for over ten months, and the descent of Egypt from a hope-filled Arab Spring into a bitter Arab Winter is a dangerous development.
The growing death toll of the last five days of violence in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez (which led to the reinforcement of the headquarters of the Suez canal administration) and Aswan is now over 22 and in excess of 1,750 injured. Smaller-scale protests took place in Ismailiya and the Nile Delta cities of Mansura and Mahalla, and in the northern town of Qina, where there was an attempt to free prisoners from their cells.
However, the focus of attention remains on Tahrir Square where many thousands of Egyptians continue to protest. These disturbances represent the longest sustained protest since the removal of ex-President Mubarak in February and calls into doubt the viability of parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28, 2011.
The violence of the weekend broke out when Egyptian police - it is claimed - used excessive force to end a sit-in being staged in the center of the square by the families of people injured in the revolution. Tear gas was used against the demonstrators, who responded with Molotov cocktails and concrete missiles.
Already angry with previous rough handling of protests by police, thousands of protestors sympathizing with those holding the sit-in rushed to Tahrir Square and clashed with the security forces. From this point on the situation rapidly spiraled out of control - leading to the death and injuries noted above.
However, the deeper and root cause of the recent escalation of political protests is the constitutional guidelines laid down by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and promulgated by the-then Deputy Interim Prime Minister Ali Silmi.
In essence the protesters are enraged over what they see as the profoundly undemocratic constitutional and supra-constitutional provisions which would allow the following:
- SCAF appointment of 80% of the members of the assembly that will write the constitution (thus controlling the text)
- The Egyptian military budget to be kept secret
- SCAF could veto any articles of the constitution before it went to a national referendum.
The net result was that all political parties of every persuasion were outraged for various different reasons:
- The Islamists, as they believe that SCAF would use its power of veto over articles in the new constitution in order to keep Egypt a broadly secular state.
- The Leftists were appalled at the prospect of heavy-handed interference by SCAF in civilian governance.
- All the protesters are angered by the trial of civilians in military courts which are seen as profoundly undemocratic (and which have a backlog of several thousand outstanding cases.)
Following the chaotic events of the last three days in particular, we have watched a considerable damage limitation exercise being run by SCAF.
SCAF has agreed to accept the resignation of the government and to form instead a "national salvation government" and simultaneously to accelerate the process towards the presidential elections which will take place - on current planning - before the end of June 2012. This is a clear attempt to mollify one of the core demands of the protestors.
However, the Parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28 will extend over a period of some 12 weeks. SCAF had originally said that a new Parliament should select a 100-member representative assembly which would then have to draft a new constitution within six months. The new constitution would then be approved by a referendum prior to a Presidential election. The timescales mean that SCAF would still be in power until mid-2012 at the earliest - or 2013 in the worst case.
Field Marshal Tantawi made a speech in which the following key themes - clearly carefully weighted to meet many of the protestors' demands - were stressed: SCAF's stated intention remains to handover power to a properly elected President, and SCAF is prepared to transfer power immediately following the referendum. He also sent his condolences to the families of victims of the recent violence.
Tantawi said that the military was only there to protect the people and did not seek permanent power. He said: "The armed forces, represented by their Supreme Council, do not aspire to govern and put the supreme interest of the country above all considerations. They are fully prepared to immediately hand over power and to return to their original duty in protecting the homeland if that what the people want, through a popular referendum if necessary."
Missing from this is the issue of the contested supra-constitutional aspects such as the military's intention for its budget to remain opaque and the trying of civilians in military courts. However, we have also noted an interesting development in the objectivity of the coverage of the protests by State TV, which is addressed below, and which highlights the potential for incremental change to take hold in Egypt.
Nevertheless, the crowds remain deeply skeptical that SACF will release its grip on power - the last three presidents were all from the Egyptian armed forces. Politically, SCAF is both unrepresentative and transitional, although there are growing concerns that there may be an alternative agenda - namely that SCAF does not intend to give up power until it is ready to do so.
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