Sunday, 6 May 2012

The SCAF walking a fine line in Egypt

Gunshots were heard and military police fired tear gas into crowds of protesters near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense in Cairo on May 4, pushing them back to Abbasiyah square, according to Al-Hayat 2 TV, Ahram Online reported.

The April 6 Youth Movement announced their withdrawal from the area and asked other protesters to leave too. Some protesters lit fires to counteract the tear gas, according to Al Jazeera TV. The military also fired water cannons at the demonstrators who threw stones as they tried to march, AP reported. Eight protesters have been injured, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry.

Elsewhere in Cairo, at least five people were killed and dozens injured May 2 when men thought to be local residents attacked protesters outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo, a Health Ministry source told Egyptian state television, Ahram Online reported.

The demonstrators were protesting army rule, Reuters reported. Tahrir Doctors in a statement confirmed two deaths, both from bullets to the head. Eyewitnesses at a field hospital estimated eight deaths. The attackers used cement-based bombs, stones, Molotov cocktails, birdshot guns and tear gas canisters, eyewitnesses said. The two sides fought with sticks, stones and truncheons.

Egyptian politics has been in turmoil since February 2011 when protesters took to the streets demanding the resignation of incumbent President Hosni Mubarak. After the worst of the protests were over, and Mr Mubarak had been removed, the demonstrators turned to more traditional means of power evolution.

The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's ruling military council, will hold to its plan to hand over power before June 30 and elections in Egypt will continue as scheduled despite clashes, Gen. Mahmoud el-Assar said May 3, Reuters reported. Mr el-Assar said the council is equally distant from all candidates. He said police forces stopped clashes in Abbassiya, Al Arabiya reported. He added that while protesters are free to express their opinions, chaos is unacceptable.

As the May 4 protests expose, many Egyptians remain angry that their promised elections still have not happened. Many more are quickly coming to realise that the supposed regime change last year, the ambiguously named Egyptian ‘Arab Spring’, did not reflect any fundamental shift in Egyptian politics.

Rather, many are concluding that Mr Mubarak was the political face of a military-regime. Upon his resignation, the military simply brought in its generals to fill the void until they could figure out how to move forward politically and with the most power retained.

He quickly lost favour with the military top-brass when he planned to have his son Gamal Mubarak succeed him. Gamal did not have any military experience and was viewed with suspicion amongst the military leaders for his more autocratic tendencies. Hosni Mubarak took a turn for the worst, health-wise, in early 2011 and the game appeared to be almost over for the military.

Then some demonstrators began filing into the streets, spurred on by protestors’ success in Tunisia earlier that year. At first there weren’t many, but as word spread, and the military that were usually so quick to intervene and quell such public antagonism simply did not intervene, many more young Egyptians felt braver and stepped outside. At the top end of the protests perhaps 300,000 Egyptians in Cairo and other cities took part.

A good indicator of a protest’s efficacy is whether the military acts to suppress it, or whether they simply decide to turn a deaf ear to the government’s orders. In Egypt, it was the notoriously cruel and arbitrary police force that tried to use force to stop the demonstrators.

But the military and state intelligence would have none of this. There were reports of clashes between police groups and military patrols that appeared to defend the now very loud voice of the protesters. Hundreds of reporters were flocking to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where I was in 2006, to cover the demonstrations and report that “regime change” was imminent.

As predicted, after 18 days of demonstrations, Mr Mubarak finally stepped down on 11 February 2011 to cheers of joy from the crowds in Cairo. He currently awaits further trials in Egyptian courts for alleged corruption and abuses of power in his long tenure.

While the international community did add to the protester’s call for Mr Mubarak to resign, they understood that when the generals of the SCAF replaced him in power nothing of significance would change. Treaties would still be honoured (an especially important consideration for Israel and the US), the Suez Canal would still flow, and the Egyptian people would be able to go about their business.

Indeed, the low total of protesters (300,000 out of a population of some 90 million) indicated that the majority of Egyptian citizens did not participate in the February protests and most likely did not appreciate them nor agree with their demands. Interviews of demonstrators by western news agencies tended to focus on English-speaking, educated youth announcing their desire for democracy. Alternate reports from Cairo and beyond however, intimated that a vast population of Arabic-speakers did not support regime change.

The protests this May are a continuation of what the demonstrators of last year see as their original goal. The SCAF are still in power in Cairo and while they have assured the rest of Egypt those fair and free elections will be held in the near future, that date is never announced.

The protesters want their parties to be recognised and given fair chance at elections, but they must be careful what they wish for. With the potential for political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group founded in 1928, the protesters dream of democracy could well usher into power groups that may be worse than military rule.

The SCAF are unwilling to give up the reins of power just yet as some in the ruling elite wish to change Egypt’s relations with their northern neighbour, Israel. The Rafah crossing, where Palestinian smugglers operate and legitimate movements occur, has been a thorn for Egypt and a potential flashpoint in Egypt-Israel relations.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) called up six reserve battalions May 2 due to escalating tensions on the Egyptian and Syrian borders, The Times of Israel reported. Israel's parliament has given IDF permission to call up 16 more reserve battalions if necessary.

Intelligence assessments called for the deployment of more soldiers, an IDF spokesperson said. IDF had to choose between calling up reserves and cancelling training for enlisted soldiers and chose the former so that enlisted soldiers would be prepared in the case of a war, according to Maariv. The Israeli Defense Ministry received special approval from the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to call on the reserves for the second time in three years, Xinhua reported.

A military crisis with Israel is unlikely in the near term, but rival political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood could play the escalating tensions between the two countries for their own advancement.

The SCAF have a lot on their schedule at the moment, so while the recent protests in Cairo indicate a remaining simmering undercurrent of discontent and impatience, the military firmly holds power and will decide when to hold elections when it feels it’s ready. These are planned for May 23-24, but that timetable could still change.

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