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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - July 28, 2011

by Roula Khalaf

Egypt’s youth are “the great product of Egyptian soil”, declared on Saturday Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council ruling the country since the February ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

On that same day, however, his soldiers stood by while young people marching to the interior ministry with a list of demands were assaulted by thugs wielding sticks and knives.

“The military council proved that they are maintaining the same regime and that nothing has changed except the president,” says Shadi al-Ghazili Harb, a youth leader. “We feel we’ve been tricked into a soft coup, not a revolution.”

The weekend violence marked an alarming escalation of tensions between youth groups and the military council that has thrown Egypt’s fragile democratic transition into crisis.

It coincided with unrest in Tunisia, which has also been moving on a fragile path towards October elections after the January collapse of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Renewed protests last week led to the death of a 14-year-old boy in Sidi Bouzid, the same Tunisian provincial town where a vegetable seller set himself on fire in December, sparking the wave of upheaval in the region.

“There are complications, and forces of the old regime are not completely absent from the troubles,” says Mustafa Ben Jaafar, a leading Tunisian politician. “But this is all part of the transition. It’s not an easy period, but it does not make us lose faith.”

Whether in Egypt or Tunisia, forging a new political order after decades of authoritarian rule in which politics were dominated by a ruling elite is certain to be turbulent. Of the two countries it is Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, which has raised the most anxiety given its potentially huge impact on the fast-changing region.

A military institution that had for decades been part of the autocratic system but operated in the shadows has shown its lack of experience in taking on the role of guardian of a youth revolution.

True, its primary objective has been to balance democratic demands against concerns for stability – the deep purge of the ministry of the interior demanded by the youth could further demoralise a police force that has been reluctant to return to work.

But by dragging its feet over the trials of police officers responsible for the killing of 850 protesters, and pursuing military tribunals for civilians, some of them protesters, the military council has fed the perception of a conspiracy to protect the old regime. Yet, if the generals have an urgent interest in calming the new wave of protests, youth groups too should be looking for a way to step back from confrontation.

Unlike during the revolution, large segments of the Egyptian population today appreciate the military’s role in getting rid of Mr Mubarak and are above all desperate for a return to stability.

Most dangerously perhaps, the return to Tahrir Square for a new sit-in has the backing of liberal groups but not the Muslim Brotherhood, underlining the post-revolutionary polarisation of Egyptian society.

In fact, the outburst against the generals is partly fuelled by suspicion of a secret deal with the Brotherhood intended to deliver political influence to the Islamists in exchange for guarantees for the generals.

The Islamists scoff at the claims of conspiracy.

Issam el-Erian, an official in the Brotherhood’s newly formed political party, says the battle today should be seen as a political rather than a revolutionary struggle. Playing down the gravity of the crisis, he describes it as “the contractions before the birth”.

Youth leaders, however, are less sanguine. Mohamed Adel of the April 6 movement says the youth might end their sit-in at Tahrir Square, but only to work harder and strengthen their ability to mobilise the street with the aim of “finding different ways of fighting the Islamists”.


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