Tahrir protesters don't speak for all in anxious Egypt
Pandemonium ruled Cairo's centre last week - entire streets were covered in upturned stones, large clouds of acrid tear gas hung in the air, and protesters' chants and drumbeats echoed day and night.
The fighting didn't really stop until after the army was able to make use of a truce to build a wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire, to separate protesters and police. But this has not resolved the crisis. A new spark could rekindle fighting at any time.
The events of recent days are more complicated than the dramatic tale we are told by television news. It is not just about valiant democracy activists versus ageing autocratic generals; not just about Tahrir Square's new Egypt against Hosni Mubarak's old Egypt - though that is part of the story.
It is also about the failure of the political class and about the old regime having created lasting problems that cannot be resolved by well-meaning demonstrators. And it is about a state, which employs millions, fighting to maintain itself.
"Tahrir is not Egypt," the generals argue, and they are right. As much as we may sympathise with the hundreds of thousands who descend into the streets, we cannot say they represent all of a country of 85 million. Likewise, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), with its 20 or so generals, is not Egypt either.
During last Friday's large protests Egyptian state television showed two scenes at the same time: a wide shot of Tahrir Square with its hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, and more closed-crop view of Abbasiya Square, near the Ministry of Defence, showing what they often call "the forces of stability."
Abbasiya was a mirror image of Tahrir: the same cadence and good humour in the chants, but here they praised the police and military, instead of cursing them.
Yet one must not rush to dismiss Abbasiya, for it was more than government agitprop: there, mostly middle-class families expressed not just blind support for the generals, but also fear for their country and a desire for calm.
Since Mr Mubarak was toppled, most opinion polls have shown steady support for the military. They also suggest that the interim government exaggerated concern about security to justify its heavy-handed actions. According to a Gallup poll, concern about insecurity far outweighs the personal experience of it.
Even if the military's star is waning and there is a large degree of disappointment in its performance thus far - notably its failure to deliver tangible changes after Mr Mubarak's fall - many Egyptians do not see a clear alternative. The position of the average Egyptian is probably between Tahrir and Abbasiya: they back the demand for real change and accountable government, but at the same time worry about prolonged instability.
The most enduring effect of last week's protests may well be a serious rupture in the Egyptian tradition of putting the military above scrutiny, and a move toward obtaining a firm commitment from the generals to relinquish power to civilians.
This is in good part the result not only of the SCAF's lacklustre management of the country for the past nine months, but also of the more recent tactical mistake of having explicitly demanded that their interests be protected in the next constitution.
What had been tacitly understood and even accepted by many became a concrete point of debate. This in itself did not spark the recent clashes - police brutality did - but it gave the protest movement a new focus.
What comes next? With the fighting now stopped, the message of discontent delivered to the generals, and the government having appointed an old apparatchik as the new prime minister, instead of choosing a political leader who might have shown more independence, the urgency of Tahrir is slipping.
The beginning of elections (which the SCAF appears intent on going ahead with, despite the many risks) will shift the public's attention. The political class is split, with many of the newer post-revolution parties siding with Tahrir while the older, most established political formations focus on elections or simply bet that loyalty to SCAF will pay off.
The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has both gained and lost from the crisis. It is seen as traitorous and opportunistic by many in Tahrir for not joining in the protests, and many of its own are outraged at its position.
The Brothers say the elections will give politicians the legitimacy they can use to counter the generals, and they are partly right. But their moves to minimise the importance of the protests - and a failed attempt at holding their own demonstration near Al Azhar Mosque in medieval Cairo, as a counterpart to both Tahrir and Abbasiya - have earned them scorn.
At the same time, their focus on elections gives them an edge, if they do as well as expected despite the recriminations against them. Any loss from that may be outweighed by the fact that their political opponents on the left were distracted by Tahrir over the last week, with many suspending their campaigns. The elections, if they take place smoothly and legitimately enough, will create a new reality that may work against Tahrir.
This is probably the outcome the protest movement and the political parties that have decided to back it fear most: that they would be made less relevant, with the next battle shifting from being between the square and the generals to between parliament and the generals.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist. He blogs at www.arabist.net
Published: November 28, 2011 04:00 AM