November 21, 2011

Egypt’s Revolution Grinds Forward

A great volume of debate has filled the Internet, public streets and policy circles around the world. Some people question whether Egypt’s revolution lost its way or failed to complete its objectives, while others doubt that Egypt is experiencing a revolution. Each time a large-scale protest breaks out in Tahrir and triggers the familiar violence of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the debate reverses direction as it attempts to “take the revolution back.” These mood swings are understandable as an outlet to express frustration and re-empower the revolution’s narrative, but they are less accurate from a historical perspective.

“Egyptians Clash, Marking Quick Turn Against Military,” declares a headline from the Wall Street Journal, describing a “turn” that was months in the making.

Despite its ability to maintain a rapid pace, revolution is a long-term process by nature and cycles through a series of phases. Removing Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal fulfilled the revolution’s first objective, to be followed by resistance against Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and his Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). These are two phases in the same revolution. Understanding the ups and downs of revolution is central to outlasting a regime, loyalists and self-interested oppositional forces, and current events should be viewed as part of a single organic process.

The main takeaway for those believing Egypt’s revolution was “lost” and may be “won” again is the importance of action. Constant organization and initiative is necessary to drive the cycle of revolution towards completion, and radical action propels the movement between phases.

“This is the breaking point we were all waiting for,” Tarek Salama, a surgeon, predicted from Cairo’s field hospital. “Getting rid of Mubarak was just the warm-up. This is the real showdown.”

The tragic price of protracted struggle is the blood of new martyrs. Monday unfolded as Tahrir Square’s most heavy-handed crackdown in weeks; black-clad and bulky green forces from the Interior Ministry sprayed crowds with a variety of ammunition as they torched protesters’ tents. Tear gas and rubber bullets - deadly in their own right - gave way to live ammunition when organized Egyptians refused to back down. Multiple sources on the ground allege that security forces were ordered to aim for the head, and assaults against seemingly unconscious protesters quickly surfaced on YouTube.

Casualty estimates (over three days) from Egypt’s Health Ministry and independent sources range between 23 and 30, with at least 1,800 injured. Doctors at Tahrir’s field clinic reported at least ten patients killed by live ammunition, with a high of 20.

“It’s like someone who is drowning and flailing their arms to stay above water,” said Hazem Sadek, 21, from Tahrir. “That’s what SCAF are doing. They are panicking.”

The SCAF naturally denied responsibility for Monday’s bloodshed. General Saeed Abbas, assistant chief of the Central Military Region, told a press conference at Tahrir that, "the military council did not come to the square on Sunday to disperse protestors, but it came at a request of the Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy.” Telling reporters that security forces hadn’t entered the square, Abbas claimed that “thugs” had been killed instead of peaceful demonstrators - before introducing a mysterious actor as the culprit.

“There is an invisible hand in the square causing a rift between the army and the people.”

The SCAF will hold an emergency meeting in the near future and, “invited all the political and national forces for an emergency dialogue to look into the reasons behind the aggravation of the current crisis and ways to resolve it as quickly as possible.” However no protester sees a political role for the SCAF, which has rejected the cabinet’s resignation until Prime Minister Essam Sharaf can be replaced. Egypt’s established political powers wouldn’t have flinched to the people’s demands without the provocation of mass action. The cabinet wouldn’t have submitted its resignation, adding another sources of pressure to the SCAF’s isolation, and some Egyptians now chanting "The people want the downfall of the field marshal" would be sitting in their homes.

Tahrir’s overnight count was estimated above 10,000 and, according to social media sources, remained packed as of 2 AM. The cabinet’s potential resignation merely catalyzed the revolutionaries’ demand for the immediate transition to civilian authorities, and a “million man march” is scheduled for Tuesday.

A final benefit of Tahrir’s new upheaval is the potential to delay next Monday’s scheduled parliamentary election, and the Obama administration's response to this weekend’s violence illustrates the merits of such a move. Instead of denouncing the SCAF’s overall misrule and the Interior Ministry’s brutality, U.S. officials attempted to ignore Monday’s violence as they maintain tunnel vision towards Monday’s election. White House spokesman Jay Carney and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland both spent the majority of Egypt's allocated time on “a free, fair and transparent election.” Only when pressed on Tahrir’s violence did they respond, "We're deeply concerned about the violence. We call on restraint of all sides."

Not only do these statements reveal the U.S. bias in favor of Egypt’s SCAF - as if protesters were shooting live rounds and beating people unconscious - they set the tone to Washington's general policy. By “calling on all sides to urge restraint,” U.S. officials are announcing that they don’t want protesters to test heavy-handed security forces. They don’t want protesters to provoke a government crackdown and threaten Egypt’s military rule - they want Egyptians to patiently await an election under the SCAF’s terms. Although the council has yet to formalize a proposal that seized parliament’s power to rewrite Egypt’s constitution, Monday’s election holds the potential to create additional roadblocks for the revolutionaries.

Many Egyptians already doubted the SCAF’s ability to hold a fair election, and this pivotal event should ideally unfold without Tawani’s input.

The completion of Egypt’s revolution, from the first free election to the formal end of a transitional period, could take five years, a decade or longer. History has watched many revolutions and uprisings persist for decades or even hundreds of years. What’s important is to never stop moving forward and, when forward progress does stop, to regain focus and push onward. Revolution isn’t over until the revolutionaries give up.

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