Why the SCAF announcement is not good for Egypt

On Saturday Sami Anan, chief of staff of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), released a document signalling a much awaited change in several key policies. The day before, Friday 30th September, protestors had flocked to Tahrir Square to protest against the ongoing military rule in Egypt and demand a transition to civilian rule. At the same time, political parties had threatened to boycott the upcoming legislative elections were there not changes to the electoral law, with the Muslim Brotherhood even threatening ‘a revolution’ on Sunday had its demands not been met. The SCAF announcement, coming a day later, seemed to be a direct result of such pressure.

News reports have tended to see Saturday’s statement by the SCAF as the result of pressure from mass protests and political parties thus implying some concession by the military leaders to democracy and popular will. The BBC stated that:

“Egypt’s ruling military council has decided to amend an article of an election law, state media report, following demands from protesters.”

The Egyptian Gazette goes further in describing the announcement as the SCAF “caving in” to popular pressure.

Initially, there seems to be reason to praise the SCAF’s announcement. It purports to set out a timetable to the handover power to a civilian government, promise the end of military trials for civilians and the emergency law and amend the controversial electoral law.  However, closer analysis of the document makes for a less optimistic reading.

Perhaps the issue that resonates most strongly with the public is the military trials of civilians. Since the revolution, more people have been tried under military law than under the entire 30 years of Mubarak’s reign. On Friday nearly every protestor and wall was covered with stickers saying الثوار مش بلطجيه – ليه نتحاكم عسكرية؟ (Revolutionaries are not thugs – why are we trying them militarily?) or, more simply, أنا ضد المحاكمات العسكرية للمدنيين (I’m against the military trials of civilians). The SCAF document only promises to ‘study’ or ‘look into’ ending military trials for civilians. Anyone who has lived in Egypt will tell you that promising to ‘look into something’ effectively means nothing is going to happen. On top of that, even this vaguest of commitments comes with an immediate caveat: the SCAF will study ending military trials for civilians إلا في الجرائم التي ينص عليها قانون القضاء العسكري (with the exception of crimes committed under the military code of justice). However, Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef points out that this military code includes penal code crimes and covers almost all crimes. In adding this caveat we see that the SCAF doesn’t understand, or is choosing to disregard, the issue at stake. The delineation should not be the type of crime committed but the status of the person committing the crime; military trials should be reserved for military personal – not civilians.

The second ‘concession’ the SCAF made was to set out a clear timetable for transferring power to civilian rule. The problem is that its not clear and barely a timetable. The schedule given by the SCAF is complicated and, crucially, non-binding. Deciphering the announcement reveals that elections for the Lower House (Peoples’ Assembly) are set to begin on 28th November 2011 and last until mid January 2012. Once results have been announced, this house will convene and on the 26th March, the upper house (Shura Council) will sit. Then, by early April, the two houses will come together to draw up a new constitution. This constitution will be written and put to referendum by October. Once the constitution has been passed, candidates will be able to put themselves forward for president and a presidential election will be held within 60 days. Assuming, as is probable, all parts of the process take the maximum amount of time, Egypt is effectively left with a military government until late 2012 or even early 2013 – and that is if there are no unforeseen delays. By that time the SCAF will have been in power for two years will have had the time to entrench its control over Egypt’s political institutions leaving the country in an Algerian-esque part-military/part-civilian political landscape.

Next, the SCAF promises to look into the possibility of “stripping former National Democratic Party members of political rights”. Not only is stripping anybody of their political rights deeply problematic from a human rights standpoint but it must be remembered that Egypt was a one-party state before the revolution. As such, vast numbers of NDP members will have joined the party out of necessity rather than any commitment to Mubarak’s dictatorship. This is especially the case in upper Egypt where big families were courted by the party often with little option other than to work with it.

The final part of the SCAF’s announcement concerns the largely incomprehensible electoral laws. Political parties have vociferously campaigned against article 5 of the new electoral law. As it stands, a third of the MPs in Egypt’s next parliament will be independent candidates. Political parties have decried the law as enabling former Mubarak supporters to gain seats in the parliament and for encouraging vote buying as people vote for individuals and not party manifestos. That political parties call for a larger proportion of seats to go to political parties should come as no surprise. Indeed, the amendment to article 5 should be seen more as the SCAF appeasing the parties than as a genuine concession to democracy and greater civilian control of Egyptian politics.

The argument that the SCAF gave in to popular pressure is undermined by the fact that Friday’s turnout, at between 5,000 to 10,000 was below expectations and far below the level needed to intimidate the SCAF.

Despite hopes that it was a response to democratic pressures, the SCAF document serves only to sap more optimism from those hoping for a democratic, civilian-run, Egypt. It is this dying optimism that is leading to a build up of tension against the SCAF. On Friday I heard for the first time mass chants specifically against leader of the SCAF FIeld Marshal Tantawi with 1000s of people chanting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير (the people want the overthrowing of the field marshal). Without a genuine change in the direction of Egyptian politics an escalation in the tension is inevitable.

It was supposed to be a protest

This Friday’s protest was in reaction to the decision by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to expand Egypt’s emergency law. A move which Amnesty international called “the greatest erosion of human rights since the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak”. Indeed, the scope of the law is now wider than it was before the revolution, now including instances of domestic disturbances, public order issue, and ‘assaults on the right to work’. Effectively enabling the SCAF to crush any protest or strike at will. Those arrested face trials under Supreme State Security Courts which are effectively military trials.

The plans were grand. It was supposed to be a million people all dressed in black staging a sit. It was supposed to demonstrate their rejection of the reactivation of the emergency law. It was supposed to be the ‘Friday of Deafening Silence’.

The reality was very different.

In contrast to last week’s protest Tahrir square was almost empty. A few hundred protesters gathered in one corner of the square talking loudly as speakers addressed the crowd with microphones.

The Friday of deafening silence was neither.

Indeed, there seemed to be as many salesmen as protesters. There were selling everything from orange juice and tissues to more sinister products like drugs and electric tasers.

That the protest failed to live up to its billing is clear. However, it is less clear why people failed to turn up to express their opposition to the reactivated emergency law.

Most of the protestors I spoke to explained the low attendance due to fear of the newly activated emergency law. Given the violence outside the Israeli embassy last week it was conceivable that the SCAF would use the law to detain protestors and thus a certain amount of anxiety would be justified. Whilst this may have prevented some people from attending the protest, it seems inadequate to explain the huge drop in attendance. A more important factor was that the diverse groups present in last weeks protest didn’t attend this weeks, including the April 6th movement and other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood once again didn’t attend. This in spite of the fact that both groups strongly oppose the emergency law.

Before concluding that Egyptians are now afraid to protest or have given up the challenge, we must remember that the Friday 9th protest was the first for over a month, allowing time for preparation and planning. Coming just 7 days later, the Friday 16th protest simply came too soon for many of the groups and organisations that are able to bring people onto the square. There was also the fear that the SCAF would manipulate any trouble akin to that of last week to further entrench its control over the country.

The poor turnout does not mean that Egyptians are resigned to accepting the emergency law. Indeed, the April 6th movement and others plan to hold large demonstrations this coming Friday (23rd). This promised to be a more accurate gage of Egypt’s rejection of SCAF policies. We’ll see.

A story of flags in Tahrir Square

Yesterday marked the first mass protest in Tahrir Square since the start of Ramadan over a month ago. The military abandoned the square for 24 hours to allow the demonstration, promising to re-seize afterwards. Making the most of this window, activists labeled the day ‘gomAa taSHeeH al-masaar’ (the Friday of the correction of the path’), alluding to their hope of reclaiming a revolution that many believe is slipping out of their hands, if it hasn’t done already.

Walking into Tahrir Square, past the activists checking bags and IDs, you’re struck by a distinct lack of police (in uniform anyway) and a mass of waving flags. Most of these are Egyptian flags waved defiantly yet still joyously by revolutionaries. However, it’s the other flags present that provide insights into the disparate groups to be found in the square. Showing that even without the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, Egyptian revolutionaries are a vast and heterogeneous group.

Flags of the other North African revolutionary states were evident with many Tunisian and the new (old) Libyan flag. Indeed, one man had both of these flags with the Egyptian one on one pole because, he said, he saw them as ‘one revolution’. There were also a small band of men waving the old UAR flag that represented the union of Egypt and Syria and were chanting Arab nationalist slogans whilst holding up photos of the former president and champion of Arab nationalism Gamal Abdel Nasser. There were also Saudi Arabian flags on sale but it seemed that none of these had been bought, maybe the seller wasn’t aware that the Salafists had planned to stay at home.

As well as national flags there were various banners of domestic associations and groups, particularly youth activist groups. The most prominent of these was the banner of a white fist against a black background of the April 6th movement that was inspired by the Serbian anti- Milošević movement Otpor! Talking to activists you got the sense that they were angry that the revolution had not been completed but were confident that it would be. Many of their members expressed the traditional left-wing sentiments that many supposed were dead in the Middle East, describing the revolution in terms of class warfare and the rise of the oppressed against their oppressors. Indeed, one activist eagerly asked me whether the revolution had been an inspiration for the London riots and expressed disappointment when I confessed that I hadn’t seen any Egyptian flags present in London last month. He then stated that he would support any means necessary of ensuring that the state ‘did was it was supposed to do’ for the people of Tottenham and Croydon. He didn’t say whether the same applied to Egypt.

One activist expressed her concern about protest days such as this as the need to be seen to be involved ‘prevents groups from actually doing anything’. However the level of unity and common purpose between the groups was admirable and seemed important given the obstacles they’re facing. Indeed, most of the people present were wearing stickers ‘No! I’m against military trials of civilians’ in Arabic in reference to many thousands (estimates are at 12,000) that have been tried in recent months.

Two of the other most prominent flags were those of arch-rival football groups the Ultras of the Al-ahly team and the White Knights of competitor club Zemalek. Interestingly enough, given their long history of hatred, these groups seem more like allies than enemies. At their most recent match the Ultras had got into a fight with the police and were then aided in their scuffles by the White Knights. Thus a new friendship was born, one that had been unthinkable before. As one ultra put it, it is ‘like seeing Jews and Muslims dancing together in the street.’

Which leads to the last type of banner present, those reflecting the marked anti-Israeli sentiment. There were many signs criticizing Mubarak’s policy towards Israel and when one speaker called for the suspension of the sale of gas to Israel the crowd cheered with approval. There was even a banner stating in English that ‘Israel does not exist’. Such sentiment does not only represent the outrage felt throughout the Middle East at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians but also a rejection of the former regime’s foreign policy, or lack thereof. Mubarak was seen as a puppet of the USA and Israel and it would be expected that revolutionary voices would reject such a model, particularly as it was built on a liberal capitalist economic policy that most of them so strongly reject.

The protests then moved on with various marches towards the Ministry of the interior and the Israeli embassy. We were told that it wouldn’t be safe for us to take part as there were persistent rumours that Western spies were in the midst of the protestors seeking to pervert the revolution. We took the advice of our Egyptian friends. Sadly what followed was a level of violence that had seemed unthinkable during the day. In the now infamous riot outside the Israeli embassy another flag was introduced to our story, as protestors tore down the Israeli flag from outside the embassy and several others were burnt. The state of alert that has been imposed makes the revolutionaries hopes of ‘correcting the path’ seem further away than ever.