Posted on Monday, November 21st, 2011 at 8:35 am
Author: Kristin Rawls
One of the most reliable truisms in international relations is that military governments are not, by definition, democratizing ones. They are self-serving. When their interests coincide with those of the masses, as they have in moments of Egypt’s history, it is easy to lose sight of this.
When Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, Egyptians celebrated a crucial and unprecedented victory. But what international journalists and observers often failed to acknowledge was that Egyptians had toppled a dictator, but they had not toppled a regime.
Commentators again and again echoed the simplistic idea that Egyptians enjoy some sort of special “close relationship” with the Egyptian military. With the notable exception of Anderson Cooper, many mainstream reporters completely ignored the fact that military governance is a risky business unlikely to yield a transparent democratic transition.
But Egyptian activists – though much smaller in number these days than the masses who toppled Mubarak – have continued to press for reforms. It was reported almost immediately that the Egyptian military had not stopped detaining, torturing and even disappearing political activists.
Well, things have come to a head over the past couple of days due to conflicts over upcoming elections. Thousands have converged on Tahrir Square. As of this writing, Al Jazeera has confirmed 11 protesters dead and hundreds wounded from clashes with police forces on Sunday. The tear gas and water cannons that the world community saw during the January protests have been on display in full force. Clashes have been reported in Alexandria as well.
It’s hard to capture the kind of chaos that has overtaken the square. Conditions seem to escalate minute by minute as I write this, meaning that this piece will undoubtedly be dated by the time it runs. Below I offer a smattering of what has been unfolding:
Earlier today, Al Jazeera posted this citizen video of police dragging the corpse of a protester and depositing it into a pile of trash:
And here is another just posted of two unconscious men being beaten by riot police:
Reporter Malika Bilal has been live-tweeting events on the ground. Just a few minutes ago, she described horrific “almost-stampedes” in which “[hoards run at you all at once].”
And activist Abdel-Rahman Hussein just reported that “[army] fired gas” has just “reached [Hardee’s] at the mouth of Mohamed Mahmoud [Street], where protesters have converged.
Seconds ago, activists uploaded a photograph depicting what appears to be more dead bodies. Andy Carvin of NPR has just noted reports of army tanks entering the square. And gun fire has broken out. All are being taken as ominous signs of what is to come.
At the moment, then, the only sure thing is that the situation is unstable and likely to worsen. But what exactly was the catalyst for this most recent confrontation? Activist blogger Abel-Rahman Hussein describes the context and resulting conflict as follows:
The government and the Muslim Brotherhood are at loggerheads over the constitutional principles document of Ali El-Selmy, [Vice Prime Minister for Political Development and Democratic Transition]. The Brotherhood are not interested in the articles that allow the military to be an untouchable state within a state, but rather with the article that delineates the formation of the committee that will draft the country’s next constitution. El-Selmy’s document stipulates that only 20 members of the committee will be taken from the parliament, a number the Brotherhood are not happy with since they’re expecting significant gains in…elections this month.
All of this, of course, is tied to the military’s desire to continue its stranglehold over government. Hussein continues:
…so this is a tiff between two political forces, an extension of the negotiating process, with protesters in the middle. There’s a lot of anger at the Brotherhood from people in the square, because they [are not present]. Salafis showed up eventually well into the night. The fighting continues. The Interior Ministry [has] released statements – written and verbally by its commanders – that not one rubber bullet or birdshot was fired by their forces. Seems we’re all living in some sort of collective dream, because I personally witnessed the police soldiers…aiming and firing directly at the protesters. The ball bearings from the birdshot cartridges hit a lot of people, even those standing more than 50 meters away. And the inordinate amount of tear gas is naturally perfectly fine of course, as the police practiced the utmost “self-restraint” when breaking up what was really a bunch of people standing about in the square…
It’s the same old attitude, the same old haughty arrogance and the same old inability to be anything but thuggish in its constitution. This is a battle against stagnation, and against the insistence of the military and the cabinet to revert back to type, with mentalities incapable of adjusting to what should have been a new Egypt. The battle continues.
In other words, the democratic aspirations of pro-democracy activists throughout Egypt risk being thwarted in favor of the status quo. The military regime has been painting pro-democracy activists as destabilizing forces in the country who refuse to let it move forward. But the regime has ceded very little of substance.
Meanwhile, the United States – which so loftily praised these democratic aspirations in January – is not uttering a word. It’s hard not to blame this on the realpolitik that governed US relations with the Mubarak regime for 30 years.
But it’s time for the Obama administration to speak up, and more than this, it’s time for action. It’s time to stop the usual $2 billion annual military package to Egypt. It should have been rescinded when Mubarak was still in power, and it is even more crucial that it be taken away now.
Egypt is in many ways a test of what is to come elsewhere in the Middle East. Egyptians will go to the polls on November 28, and clashes between police forces and protesters could very well continue through elections and in their aftermath.
Professor Khaled Hahmy of the American University in Cairo writes:
The biggest obstacle [to free and fair elections] is the army, and the conflicting and confusing electoral laws that have been sent out by the army. The military is trying to find a formula whereby it can guarantee its position in the post-election Egypt, so it has been trying different tactics.
Add to this the recent clashes that further reduce the army’s legitimacy as an arbiter of democratic transition. It’s time for the international community to step up its pressure on the military to uphold the human rights of all Egyptians.
Egyptians may ultimately prevail, but it isn’t going to be a matter of quick and seamless transition. The Egyptian revolution is not over.
So keep this story in the news. Call the White House. Send your expressions of solidarity. Send doctors and medics. Keep pressure on the Egyptian military. Stand up in any way that you can to support human rights. That the revolution isn’t quite as televised as it was in January does not mean it’s over. Get back to work.
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