Sunday, November 27, 2011

Revolution, phase 2: Egypt returns to the streets

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” Frederick Douglass once observed. “... The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

That wisdom from the 19th century has been alive and well and front and center all year in north Africa and the Middle East. In Yemen, longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh has resigned under pressure; Mohammed Bassendoua has been tapped to build a new government, according to al-Arabiya. He is expected to be the country's new prime minister. Libya is starting to shake its generational doldrums in a post-Gaddafi era; oil production there is returning to previous levels. Even Syria, bulwark of autocracy, is finding change difficult and painful to resist; Syrian security forces have seen their own troops turn on them, in support of the pro-democracy movement.

But Egypt has been the big show. That nation of 81 million people has been at the point of the spear of the region’s momentous changes before, this year, in February, when pharaoh manqué Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously dismissed. Now, phase two is kicking in; the conflict between Egyptians and Mubarak’s autocratic rule of is now a battle between the people and the equally autocratic rule of the military that replaced him.

The violence that began on Nov. 19 with clashes between SCAF forces and the generally unarmed population, has led to at least 42 deaths and more than 3,200 wounded … and the return of people to the streets of Alexandria and Suez, and more than 100,000 people to the streets of Cairo, starting a new chapter in the narrative of the nation’s transformation — the first words of which might be “As we were saying ...”

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It was all thought to be a temporary thing. The Egyptian military, grandly titled the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), would take control of the country while it adjusted to life without Mubarak. Just for a while, as the country got back on its feet.

But the pace of change in the country whose citizens’ median age is 24 has been slow, despite promised reforms. In some cases, it’s been nonexistent. Egypt’s reviled emergency law, which permits military trials and stifling of dissent, will be in place until June next year, SCAF said on Sept. 21.

SCAF has refused to concede power to a civilian authority regardless of the outcome of the parliamentary elections — the first necessary step in re-creating the government.

Now, with parliamentary elections set for Monday, it’s coming to a boil.

Al Jazeera reported Saturday that Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a presumed candidate for the Egyptian presidency, has said he will abandon his bid for the office if SCAF lets him become the interim prime minister.

In a statement from his office, ElBaradei said he was "ready to renounce the idea of being a candidate in the presidential election if officially asked to form a cabinet," and that he was "willing to respond to the demands of the youth of the revolution and the political forces calling for a national salvation government that represents all the national forces."

The protesters support ElBaradei; maybe to drive their point home, they’ve planned another mass protest for today, an opportunity to repeat their rejection of Kamal al-Ganzouri, the man named to be the new prime minister — the 78-year-old veteran of the House of Mubarak, generally derided as a wannabe of his predecessor, Hosni Lite.

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And, as you’ve a right to expect, the Occupy movement supports the protesters. In a full-throated statement on its Web site, Occupy Wall Street said that “[a]s the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces escalates the use of force on protesters at Tahrir, we call for support and solidarity for our brothers and sisters of Tahrir Square. We also call for support and solidarity with our Egyptian American brothers and sisters.”

The stage is set for ... something happening today and Monday. Some are bracing for more of the violence that’s already gone down in and near Tahrir Square, the Egyptian movement’s HQ and emotional epicenter. Shadi Hamid, an analyst with Doha Brooking Institution, told Al Jazeera that “if there is violence, that will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results [of the election].”

But there’s no reverse gear for what’s been set in motion for the second time in nine months. Shahir George knows this well.

“Whether we win or lose in this election, we'll keep going,” George, a pro-democracy activist and a candidate in Monday’s parliamentary vote, told Reuters. “We will evaluate our mistakes, learn from them and prepare for the next battle. There are still many to fight. The street will always be there.”

Image credits: Father and child in Cairo: CBS News. SCAF ruler televised statement: Egyptian state TV via CBS News. ElBaradei: IAEA photo. Egyptian anti-SCAF poster:

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