The Middle East Channel

Déjà vu in Tahrir

January 28, 2011 was one of the harshest days of clashes during the Egyptian uprising. Hundreds of thousands of people ended up in Tahrir, battling against the regime, unarmed, while the police fought with tear gas and bullets, producing an eventual death toll of almost 1,000 people. The day was pivotal in the success of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Exactly five months later on June 28th, thousands of protestors returned to Tahrir. So did the police, firing tear gas at unarmed protestors...just as they had done on January 28th.

The clashes last week reveal the deep confusion which now grips Egypt over where to go next, what type of constitution to have, what the military does or does not plan to do vis-à-vis elections, what steps are or are not being taken over bringing elements of the former regime to justice, what moves are happening to alter the deep inequality that exists between the rich and the poor...and more. This unresolved confusion was, and still is, just waiting to bubble over into conflict. For disaster to be averted, Egypt's leaders, both those at present and those who will hopefully take over in September, must move decisively to answer these urgent questions.

The military, which is the backbone of all authority in Egypt at the moment, values stability above all else. That is why it entered the fray in the first place, why they eventually forced Mubarak from power, and why they are moving slowly down the road of reform. A wide mass of Egyptians, perhaps even the majority, are willing to give the authorities a wide berth because the military is widely popular with the Egyptian people. This is also because they are most occupied with security and the economic situation, which they do not think can be solved without supporting the military. Their deference to the military should not, however, be interpreted as satisfaction with the speed of revolutionary measures by the regime.

Recent clashes erupted once more on June 28. Families of the "martyrs of the uprising" were protesting at Maspero in downtown Cairo, where they had been for a few days with hardly any attention. They learned of a celebration of the martyrs in nearby Agouza, and marched down to participate. Upon arrival, they were denied entry by security. As a result, some of them jumped the fence, demanding to get in -- and the police responded with brutal, though non-lethal, force. Reacting to this treatment of the families of the fallen, some activists went to the Ministry of the Interior, not too far from Tahrir, to protest. The police and central security forces (CSF) began clashing with them -- again, violently. And then, all mayhem broke out.

People began to descend on Tahrir for many different reasons. For some, it was a chance to defend the honour of the families of the martyrs. For others, it was an opportunity to strike back at the security forces -- forces that are still incredibly unpopular in this country. For others, it was because their friends were there, and they wanted to stand by them. For others still, it was because this was hallowed ground -- and never again would the police be given the chance to think that Egyptian civilians would allow the rule of police brutality to run Tahrir Square.

It seemed the police also had a variety of intentions for being there. The sorts of things that were being said over the loudspeakers bore little resemblance to a general crowd control exercise. They were verbally insulting the protestors as they physically assaulted them with tear gas. For many there, that kind of behaviour smacked of revenge for the victory against them during the uprising. Outside of Tahrir in other cities, protests were taking place (on smaller scales) in solidarity.

Wednesday saw some more clashes, but by the early evening, the square had quietened down. At least 600 people were reportedly injured, several dead, and the amount of tear gas (incidentally, still American-made, which did not go unnoticed by the protestors) in and around the area was immense; even the remnants of it in some places was debilitating. The interim government and the military both issued statements claiming that responsibility for the clashes lay with the protestors, and that the police and security forces were acting with wisdom and restraint.

Thursday was generally uneventful (with many going to Alexandria to wait for the then delayed verdict in the highly publicised Khaled Said court case), and while Friday attracted hundreds of people to express solidarity with those who had clashed with the police on Wednesday, it was not an enormous protest. Neither was Tuesday itself, by new Egyptian protest standards.

Clearly, there is a divide between the authorities and the protestors. But how do the rest of Egyptian society feel about what is happening? Dissatisfaction with the speed of reform is definitely felt across Egypt. Will that dissatisfaction translate into support for new protests, or will a new wave of demonstrations begin to alienate people who still support the military and fear the growing economic burden of instability?

One has to remember that July 8th has been planned, for some time, to be the big rally. The lack of wide-scale participation in the protests last week is being interpreted in some quarters as ‘revving up' for a large protest this Friday, and this has been done for a variety of reasons. Much of the Egyptian media has been reporting that people will descend onto Tahrir to demand a constitution before elections, which is a significant demand of much of the liberal camp in Egypt. Many of the new, small political parties are arguing along the same lines, yet it is unclear if that is a demand that the majority of the Egyptian masses want, as the referendum in March implied the contrary. The Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful voice against the "constitution first" camp, and is now arguing that such a move would constitute a betrayal of the peoples' democratic will. Increasingly, however, political analysts are voicing doubts about whether or not these constitution or elections first arguments actually animate the Egyptian masses.

Nevertheless, early indications suggest that people will come out on Friday, but it won't be for the cause of having the constitution written up first, second or last. It will be an expression of anger at the slowness of the revolution. It may also be driven by anger that the reformation of this police force has not been remotely accomplished. The police have been incredibly unpopular for many years, owing to their unchecked brutality -- and there is a widely held perception among Egyptians that the police showed that characteristic yet again in the protests last week. The Egyptian citizenry want the police force to serve the people at large, and they want those officers who shot at protestors to be brought to account.

Fridays in Egypt often dictate the direction of the revolution -- the tell-tale signs in the protests indicate something about public opinion, and the authorities do respond to what they believe will assuage the masses. Over the coming few days, we may see what they intend to do -- the military have frequently issued statements on the Wednesday and Thursday before a protest to try to dampen dissatisfaction. They may do so again this week, but if last week is any indication of what's to come, there is a core group that views the military as an obstacle to reform, rather than a vehicle for it. If the military wants to keep that perception from becoming more and more widespread, they are going to have to take more radical steps. One suspects that they know this, but are perhaps calculating that the public mood will be on their side. They may be right, but it's not necessarily a guaranteed state of affairs.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and the Institute for Social and Understanding, currently based out of Cairo.

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The Middle East Channel

Tahrir's journey to Palestine

The moment that Hosni Mubarak stood down from the Egyptian presidency and it was apparent that his hastily appointed vice-president, the long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, would not be succeeding him, it was clear that much would be changing in Middle Eastern politics -- including for Palestinians.

Easily the most populous Arab state, and one with a central location abutting Israel/Palestine, Egypt has always had the potential to play a huge role on the Palestinian issue. That role was lessened after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat split with the PLO leaders after the 1978 Camp David accords. But in recent years, Mubarak had become a linchpin in U.S. and Israeli efforts to steer Palestinian politics in a direction amenable to them.

Mubarak and Suleiman had two major ways to exert direct influence over Palestinian politics. First, Egypt has the only land border with the Gaza Strip other than the Strip's much longer border with Israel. The sole legal crossing point on that border, at Rafah, years ago became the only way that most Gaza Palestinians could ever hope to travel between the Strip and the outside world. (Goods, by contrast, are not allowed through Rafah. Under the 1994 Paris Agreement between Israel and the PLO, all goods going into or out of Gaza must go through crossings that go to Israel.) Cairo's control over Rafah has given it a huge ability to put pressure on Gaza's 1.6 million people and the elected Hamas mini-government that administers the Strip. 

In addition, in recent years, Egypt got the full backing of the United States and Israel to play the role of primary interlocutor in all efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and its main rivals in Mahmoud Abbas's Fateh. But as Suleiman and Mubarak had long been firmly in Abbas's camp, it surprised no one to see the reconciliation efforts that Suleiman periodically launched come to nothing  -- and Fateh and Hamas remained deeply divided.

So the departure of Mubarak and Suleiman from power in Cairo was huge for the Palestinians -- especially those trapped for many years inside Gaza, which has been described by many as an open-air prison.

Egypt's first post-Mubarak foreign minister was veteran diplomat Nabil el-Araby. He promised to take Egypt's diplomacy into several new directions, especially on the Palestine issue. On May 3, with ranking leaders of Fateh and Hamas standing at his side, he announced that the two movements had agreed to the terms of a new reconciliation agreement. It laid out the terms for the reunification of the two Palestinian Authority (PA) mini-governments that had been functioning in parallel in Gaza and the West Bank, for the integration of Hamas for the first time ever into the structures of the broader Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and for the holding of elections "within one year" for leadership positions within both bodies.

El-Araby announced that the Rafah crossing would be opened. He also declared his intention of restoring diplomatic ties between Cairo and Tehran -- an announcement that reportedly ruffled some feathers among members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the shadowy military body that is exercising presidential functions in Egypt pending the election of a new president early next year.

Around June 20, El-Araby was moved -- apparently at the behest of SCAF head Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi -- to become the new secretary-general of the Arab League. He was replaced as Foreign Minister by Mohamed El-Orabi, described by some Egyptian observers as more easygoing and less "confrontational" than El-Araby.

But even before the new man took over as foreign minister, it was clear that much of what El-Araby had promised regarding the opening of the Rafah crossing had not happened.

When El-Araby announced the May 3 agreement, he promised that Egypt would speedily open up the Rafah crossing to all passengers except men of military age. But this was not the state of affairs I discovered during a mid-June visit to Cairo and Gaza. On June 16, the day I crossed back into Egypt after three days in Gaza, just 140 Gazans made it through Rafah. As this article in the Financial Times noted, that was "far fewer than in the months before the reconciliation pact was signed." The FT reporter also noted that "At least 12,000 Gazans have registered to use the crossing so far, and seats on the shuttle bus between the terminals on either side of the border are fully booked until August."

The claims that government officials in Israel and Washington have made, that the Rafah crossing has now been fully re-opened -- and therefore, that the efforts of the international flotilla now headed to Gaza are quite superfluous -- are erroneous. The parallel claims that some in the mainstream media have been making (including here), to the effect that agriculture and everything else is booming in Gaza are equally misleading. All the Gazans I talked with say that their key demand is not to get "better" treatment as a charity case, but to be allowed to live normal lives, conduct normal economic relations with the world market -- exports, as well as imports -- and to have the freedom of travel they so desperately crave, given the wide scattering to which every Gazan family has been subject. As for the claims by the New York Times and elsewhere that "thousands of new cars" are now plying Gaza's roads, those looked seriously overstated. The Strip still has just as many creaky donkey carts as it does automobiles -- a legacy of the systematic de-development it has suffered under 44 years of Israeli occupation and many years of siege.

Regarding the situation at Rafah -- and Egypt's role in that -- a number of obstacles still seem to stand between the good intentions of people in Egypt's nominally civilian, post-Tahrir government and the reality of the situation at Rafah. It is not Egypt's civilian government, as such, that determines what happens on the ground in Rafah, but rather Egypt's still-powerful military and intelligence services. The new government in Cairo and the still-fluid political elite that brought it to power have many other large challenges they need to address -- in domestic governance, economic affairs, and foreign policy -- before they can easily turn their attentions to the Palestine question. Ultimately, Gaza and Rafah are simply very distant from Cairo.

Nevertheless, as I discovered during numerous conversations in Cairo, a large number of Egyptians still care very deeply about the Palestine issue. There have been calls from several important voices in Egypt's people-power movement for Egypt to reconsider its adherence to its 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel. Abrogation of the treaty is not likely to happen any time soon, but there are many steps short of abrogating the treaty that the emerging government in Cairo seems intent on taking to bolster the position of the Palestinians in their lengthy conflict with Israel. Certainly, in the event of any big Palestine-related crisis like the one ignited by Israel's Cast Lead operation against Gaza in late 2008, Israel and Washington can no longer count on Cairo's power structure to give them 100% backing in the way Mubarak did.

For now, however, the members of Egypt's newly dynamic political elite are focusing nearly all their energies on the urgent constitutional challenges they face at home. (They still have not agreed on the rules for their next parliamentary election, though this is scheduled for September).

The biggest longer-term challenge Egyptians face over the next few years is to redefine the role that their country's large and always powerful military will play in its politics. How that gets resolved will help to determine Cairo's policies on Palestine going forward. The leading generals are thought to be considerably less pro-Israeli in their sentiments than Mubarak-- but they also have large institutional interests that for decades now have tied them to Washington's purse-strings. In the civilian realm, meanwhile, all the main forces that were active in Tahrir Square, from the leftists to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, are united in saying that supporting the Palestinian cause is a key matter of national dignity for Egyptians.

The Arab Spring has affected Palestinian politics in many ways. But many of the biggest effects -- including those related to Egypt's always-crucial role -- may only become evident after Egyptian politics settles down at home.

Helena Cobban is a long-time analyst of Middle East affairs who is the owner of a new publishing company, Just World Books. A longer version of her reporting from her recent trip to Gaza can be found at this post on her blog, Just World News.

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