August 1, 2011

Egyptian Military Gases the Revolutionary Fire

As Egyptian protesters take stock of the now-cleared Tahrir Square, their “loss” has been greeted by cheers from local residents and various foreign observers. Those Egyptians bearing the square’s economic costs possess legitimate gripes, even if they should be directed at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Yet some U.S. analysts in the square itself consider July’s sit-in “a strategic blunder,” believing the protesters should have focused on political organization.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: an untrustworthy military council free of public pressure and left to its own devices. Everyone gets comfortable and returns to their daily routines as the system retrenches itself. This is exactly how the military, a segment of Egyptians and many U.S. elements envision a post-Mubarak Egypt. In a sign of tacit approval, the Obama administration avoided Monday’s melee in favor of Syria’s.

Capitalizing on local opposition to Tahrir sit-in, the SCAF’s Ramadan sweep fits into a larger plan to lockdown Cairo before Hosni Mubarak’s trial. While Egyptian security forces mopped up the hundreds of protesters refusing to leave Tahrir, Appeals Court President Abdel Aziz Omar informed the public that Mubarak’s trial venue would move from Cairo’s convention center to its policy academy. This decision relocates a flashpoint to the city’s outskirts, attempting to minimize security concerns by limiting demonstrations.

Many Egyptians are still skeptical that Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, will enter a cage. If his health doesn’t free him from court, the SCAF will delay the trial or strike a lenient deal. Omar said the Police Academy was selected "because it is difficult to guarantee the protection of the other place," and the facility may offer greater accommodation, but moving the venue further from the city’s core adds to these suspicions. With the trial already scheduled for national television, the SCAF could quarantine the area from thousands of revolutionaries seeking a final resolution.

Assassination remains a possibility given that only one mind is necessary, but the bulk of Egyptians want to see Mubarak receive justice. “Tight security from the police and the army” kills two birds with one bullet.

That the SCAF seeks to calm Egypt’s environment before Mubarak’s trial isn’t completely irrational. Both sides of the former strongman may reaction violently, depending on his legal outcome. This sensibility, however, is checked by the SCAF’s desire to suppress street demonstrations at all costs, whether during Ramadan or November. The military wasted July by announcing superficial political reform and conducting a systematic propaganda assault on the youth, branded as “thugs” as if Mubarak had hired them.

Although some Egyptians are exhausted by the revolutionaries, the SCAF potentially committed its own strategic blunder. Over the weekend 26 political movements agreed to suspend the Tahrir Square sit-in during Ramadan, realizing the need to regroup and breathe. Essam Abdel-Aziz Sharaf, Egypt’s new Prime Minister and a former Tahrir protester, would be given “one last chance” to implement reforms over Ramadan. Labeling the sit-in a partial success for “pushing the Egyptian revolution a step forward,” the bloc clarified that, “based on our belief that sit-ins are a means, and not a goal, the political parties and youth movements have decided to temporarily suspend their sit-in during the holy month of Ramadan.”

After Eid, the revolutionaries “will return once again... to protest peacefully in Tahrir Square so that the rest of the demands are met.”

At this point Tahrir Square began to empty of all but the most hardened core, protesters vowing not to leave their camps since January. They too, however, issued a statement that their sit-in would end once Mubarak entered the courtroom. Seemingly responding to this demand with force, hundreds of Egyptian troops descended on Tahrir Square to eradicate the camps.

Accompanied tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), and the Central Security Forces, the military “attacked Tahrir square from all directions without prior warning.” Every tent was smashed, every protester chased by electric baton-wielding security forces. Over a hundred (possibly 200) were detained and taken out of the square, their belongings dumped into garbage trucks.

Ramadan 2011 was supposed to mark a different era across the Middle East. Instead the SCAF responded as though Mubarak’s regime was still in charge, and some Egyptians believe it is. Given that the majority of protesters decided to exercise compassion and leave the square, a brutal crackdown against the few hold-outs qualifies as a disproportionate use of force. Clearing the square is initially sensible through the SCAF’s eyes - until the brutal sweep provokes even larger demonstration. The opposite effect may occur, but the SCAF appears to have ensured a Wednesday-Friday showdown in Cairo.

Until their full demands for justice and representative government are met, Tahrir Square can only be cleared physically, not mentally or spiritually.

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