Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tahrir Stalemate Shows that Egypt's Regime is Recovering

Tahrir Stalemate Shows that Egypt's Regime is Recovering

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Egyptian anti-government demonstrators hold a symbolic funeral for journalist Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, killed during clashes with pro-government supporters at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 7, 2011.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh / AP

  • The air of permanence that has begun to surround the Tahrir Square protest camp underscores the stalemate in the Egyptian political standoff. The democracy protesters show no signs of ceding this symbolic public space, but they have not managed to dislodge the regime — and its difficult to avoid the conclusion that the state has reconstituted its authority, albeit diminished and more dependent than ever on the armed forces.

The army's attempts to shrink the space occupied by the protesters on the square have prompted row upon row of human barricades stationed to surround the tanks, preventing any further encroachment without causing many casualties. But elsewhere in the city and beyond, there's been a resumption of the routines of daily life disrupted by the unprecedented challenge to Mubarak on the streets. The regime appears to have adjusted itself to a daily outpouring of civil disobedience and dissent that would not have been tolerated three weeks ago; it now seems intent on playing for time and testing the endurance of this inchoate movement.

One of the great strengths of the protest movement has been the diversity of its ranks, but the regime is clearly trying to exploit the absence of a united organizational leadership by engaging in talks with various opposition elements, offering only minor concessions, but hoping to find enough takers to eventually isolate those in Tahrir Square who reject negotiations as long as Mubarak remains in power. The core element in the protest camp opposed the talks conducted on Sunday between Vice President Omar Suleiman and opposition elements over the terms of a transition. And divisions are becoming more apparent as it becomes clear that the regime is unlikely to collapse in the way that Tunisia's did last month.(See TIME's special report "The Middle East in Revolt.")

On Sunday night, for example, several youth activists began distributing leaflets detailing possible scenarios for amending the current Constitution to allow for a democratic transition. Unsure of the document's contents, a group quickly surrounded them, perused the material, and accused them of being infiltrators from the ruling National Democratic Party — the source of their suspicion was the fact that the leaflet recognized that the current constitution requires presidential authority for any amendment. It's precisely this sort of division over the terms of a democratic transition that Suleiman and his cohorts are now actively exploiting in the hope of ending the rebellion.

While momentum has shifted back and forth numerous times, it is unclear right now how the protesters can regain the initiative. The pace of protest will no doubt be tempered, with a shift to large demonstrations on Tuesdays and Fridays. There is no reason to doubt that the protest movement can continue to bring huge crowds onto the streets, but such shows of strength are unlikely to have the same effect as the initial demonstrations, whose unprecedented scale had shocked the regime and punctured its legitimacy. The regime, now, may be able to live with quite a few more weeks of biweekly demonstrations.

The stalemate on the Square is in no small way a product of the military's patience, and willingness to protect the protesters from attack. At the same time, the army has had to oversee policing duties amid the disarray of internal security forces. But the military's interests are not the same as those of the protesters, nor necessarily as those of the Mubarak family. Besides their core institutional interests (which include maintaining their $1.3 billion annual stipend from the United States), the armed forces' priority remains maintaining the stability of the state. The effect of the democratic uprising has been to make the military the key power base inside the state, and if the regime is unable to secure an orderly transition through its negotiations with opposition groups, the armed forces might be tempted to take charge of the transition themselves — further clouding the prospects for significant reform.(See TIME's exclusive photos: "The Clashes in Cairo.")

Three nights ago, an army colonel overseeing a checkpoint in Cairo where I had been stopped took me aside for a furtive but remarkably frank conversation about Egypt's political crisis. The colonel was blunt in his criticism of police and regime-backed thugs who had attacked demonstrators, and left no doubt of his sympathy for the demonstrators' demand for Mubarak to go. But, he warned, the military would not violate orders in order to protect the protests, nor would it press for the changes demanded by the demonstrators if they themselves are not able to force the regime's hand.

The military leadership, the colonel made clear, were not sympathetic to the continuation of the protest movement; they now sought a restoration of normalcy so that troops could return to barracks. The military, as he described it, is a conservative institution, and like much of Egyptian society, it seeks stability rather than upheaval.

But with those out on the streets unlikely to accept the limited changes being offered by the regime, the coming weeks are likely to see a messy and protracted series of negotiations and protest actions, in which neither side is willing to concede.(Read "After Sticks and Stones, a War of Words in Egypt.")

And that's exactly what worries the colonel who discreetly shared his concerns with me out of earshot of his men manning the checkpoint. He fervently hoped to see a political compromise before the army leadership orders troops to clear the streets. While this might seem unlikely based on the Army's current posture, if the order came to act against the protest movement, the colonel feared, his men would follow orders — but the bonds that define his beloved institution would never be the same.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046815,00.html#ixzz1DNgG0q4N

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