It’s not the first time since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February that demonstrators have returned to the streets, but this latest wave of protests, and the authorities’ violent response, is by far the most significant. The crowds are more numerous and angrier, the crack-down more bloody than on previous occasions, and the timing is crucial: parliamentary elections are scheduled for 28 November.
On Monday, the cabinet led by Prime Minster Essam Sharaf tendered its resignation to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). SCAF has yet to accept, but the resignation of the civilian government is unlikely to appease the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other major cities. Their real target is the military, accused of human rights abuses and of concentrating political power in its hands, and with every life lost the demonstrators’ position becomes more entrenched.
The trigger for the protests, which began on Saturday, was the publication of a draft document outlining the principles of the constitution, under which the military and its budget could be exempt from civilian oversight. But since February, concern has steadily mounted that the military (which after all has played a crucial role in Egyptian politics since the fifties) is monopolising political decision-making, and anger has built over continuing human rights abuses — an Amnesty International report released on Monday concludes that Egypt’s military leaders’ human rights’ record is worse than that of the Mubarak regime.
Heba Morayef, a researcher for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, described the atmosphere in Cairo on Monday night as “very raw and very angry.” Regardless of whether or not the cabinet’s resignation is accepted, “it’s not going to make people go home,” she says, as the chants in Tahrir Square called for the resignation of SCAF head,gu Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Despite calls by the US on Monday for the parliamentary elections to go ahead as planned, Morayef believes that it is more important that the military comes up with “confidence building measures, such as ceding power to a national unity government composed of representatives from across the political parties, or a presidential council.” The elections may have to be delayed to allow this to happen, she believes.
For Morayef, the latest clashes may have been tragically violent, but they aren’t necessarily destructive for Egypt’s transition process. “It can only be good because things have been so bad so far. This wasn’t planned for, but it is forcing a confrontation over military rule. I’m happy at the sustained in anger in a way, because the military thought it could just keep things ticking along as it was”, she says.
In Alexandria too, the atmosphere is “very angry”, according to English teacher Mohamed Ansary, although he is keen to emphasise that outside the demonstrations life is going on as normal. The response to Sharaf’s resignation has been positive, but he agrees it is not enough. “People are happy, because the people on Tahrir Square expected a lot from Sharaf, but he was just a tool for the military. But the main issue is not Sharaf, it’s the Supreme Council and they want it to leave.”
He fears that unless the government regains control or delivers real concessions, they will have a “big problem” on Friday, traditionally the day that has seen the largest anti-government demonstrations. He has yet to take to the streets, although he may do if the “situation deteriorates”. Unlike Morayef, however, he is suspicious of any attempt to delay elections, suspecting that the current unrest may have been deliberately stoked by secularists afraid of a potential Islamist victory.
Having been outpaced by events on the street, neither political commentators nor ordinary Egyptians are willing to make any predictions, and it’s still not clear how the SCAF will react to the latest events. It’s rare that the political future of a country is decided in hours rather than months or years, but today is one such occasion. The demonstrators may be forcing a change to the political agenda, but just as in February, Egypt’s future and its hope for democracy depends on the military’s response.
Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear’s.