Egypt's army fails to grasp the post-Mubarak realities
What now? The sight of thousands of protesters back in Tahrir Square in Cairo, along with thousands of others around the country in Alexandria and Suez, facing the guns of the army and bleeding in the streets, has obviously sparked recollections of the early days of the Egyptian revolution at the start of the year. Are these new clashes in Tahrir Square, now entering their fourth day, a bump on the road to next week's elections - or the start of a shift in Egypt's fluid politics?
It is too early to tell. But what is certain is that these are not baseless demonstrations - the Egyptians protesting around the country are defending an essential tenet of the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The generals who now rule Egypt would be wise to listen to the language of Tahrir, or they may find themselves further on the wrong side of the revolution.
The trigger for the most recent clashes was the draft of several constitutional points that would have applied over and above a final charter. Among the points that protesters most objected to was an attempt by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to shield the military from future political oversight, and to confer powers to dismiss a future constitutional assembly.
In that attempt can be seen the problems of this new post-Mubarak era. The army tried to carve out a role for itself above the constitution that would have made it the guarantor of the rights of minorities, while entrenching its power over government. For some Egyptians, that would not be such a bad thing. For most of the last century, the model of Turkey showed the army serving as a guarantor of secular freedoms, able to step in if it felt the civilian government had overstepped its bounds. For many Egyptians, especially those who fear that individual freedoms might be curtailed under an Islamist-dominated government or constitution, having the military as a guarantor is an attractive alternative.
Or was attractive. The army is hardly an institution beyond reproach. It is from the army that every president since independence has come. Under Mr Mubarak, senior military officials enjoyed considerable freedoms outside the law - that freedom, as with all such supra-legal freedoms, was not wisely used.
Moreover, since Mr Mubarak was dethroned the army has hardly covered itself in glory. After pledging to hand over power to a civilian government within six months, that timetable has been revised to sometime in 2013. Since February, there has been a steady background noise of questions tainting the image that the army stands on the side of the people.
Greatest among these questions is the military trials - thus far, 12,000 people have been tried in military courts without proper oversight or due process. Egyptians are extremely aware of the jarring contrast between those cases and the civilian trials of Mr Mubarak and government officials. It is a paradox that officials are in civilian court for using lethal force against protesters, while those same protesters are in a military court.
Then there were the "virginity tests" conducted on female protesters in March during further demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians.
Egyptians are not inclined to place too much faith in the army any longer. The draft constitutional reforms may have been intended to give powers to the army to guarantee individual freedoms, but people are now questioning whether such power would be wisely wielded.
While there is a straightforward political disagreement at the root of these most recent clashes, one that could affect the course of politics for decades to come, the larger issue is the inability of the SCAF generals to recognise that the revolution has changed the relationship between them and the Egyptian people.
They appear not to have absorbed the chief lesson of the Arab uprisings: the status quo is not sustainable. The military council's muted reaction to the protests, expressing "sorrow" and ordering an investigation, shows a failure to understand how much Egypt has changed. The people believe that they are in command although the army rules.
Since blood has been spilt, the protests have moved beyond the original objections to super-constitutional principles, such is the fluid nature of post-Mubarak politics. But it is still unclear what these clashes will herald. It may be that Egyptians are so angered by the attacks on protesters that they will turn against the SCAF and look for a new political way forward. Already there is talk of jettisoning the SCAF road map and instead seeking a civilian government of national unity to lead the transition.
Egypt has changed in the months since the people rose up and deposed their president-for-life. The army needs to understand this. These protests are not a blip on the road to next week's election - they have changed the logic on which those elections were based. The protesters are using the only channel open to them to send a message to the military - the generals must listen to what the people of Tahrir are telling them, or risk going the same way as Mr Mubarak.
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Published: November 22, 2011 04:00 AM