Schrattenkalk in Kairo

In the following post I will try to explain what is happening in Egypt right now for those who live abroad. I will try this as even-handed as possible, be as clear as possible and circumvent the usual conspiracy theories. I know that this will not be easy and of course my position as a European with a green/liberal background has an impact on how I analyse things.

I have updated this post a couple of times and I have already added a number of links to most sections to give you an opportunity to read more about the various items I am presenting. In the most recent update I have changed four elements. First, I have broken out a section on the position of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think it is important to analyse their perspective separately because they are so important within society. Second I have tried to eliminate the timeline aspects in the last two sections (what is happening on the square and what is happening politically) and strengthen the analysis. Third, I added a section at the end looking at the most recent events and a section on how this could play out. Fourth, I made some minor updates to other sections (e.g. see in the latter part of sections on elecitons, role of army).

The pictures which I added to this post, I took in Mohammad Mahmoud Street on the Friday before the recent fights broke out, after I visited the large (pre-dominantly Brotherhood and Salafi) demonstration against the supra-constitutional principles. Graffiti has become an important form of Egyptian political expression. Most graffiti is done with stencils, free-hand is still relatively rare. If anyone knows the artists of the pieces, I would be happy to add the info.

Thanks for input for for updates to this post goes to Anja, Dani, Rehab, Mack, Chris and TJ.

What is this post about?

I just spoke with a friend at home and she said that she thinks the situation in Egypt right now “is very sad and that she hopes that the elections will go well, so that the country can finally get some stability.” This is pretty much the same feeling as is expressed by our governments. The Europeans and the American asked for violence to end for elections to proceed. The problem is, by now this might not be the real issue on the ground anymore. The developments however are moving so quickly, that they are hard to keep up with if you are not an ardent follower. Therefore I will try now to summarise some of the most important points and explain some bits and pieces. This post is meant for everyone abroad, if you have questions or find things unclear, please let me know!

Why was the military trusted?

As you surely remember on Jan 25 of this year an uprising started in Egypt against Mubarak. Mubarak had been in power since October 1981 and with a majority of Egyptians younger that 25, most had never seen Egypt without the pharaoh. After 18 days of demonstrations Mubarak stepped down and a so called Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over. At this point, the people did still trust the army. This might sound surprising, considering that all three Egyptian dictators since 1952 were army men. Nevertheless, the corruption of the system was seen to be in the Ministry of Interior and with the police and state security. The army had not attacked the demonstrators and eventually pushed Mubarak out. As a result the people chanted “The people and the army are one hand.”

Now everyone claims that this was obviously going to happen (especially in the comments of Western news websites), but any power who takes over after a revolution is not legitimised democratically, but by the revolution itself. The army promised to guard the revolution and to transition to a civilian government within a short period, I believe it was six months. The start was not too bad. Eventually they even put up an interim government which looked reasonably promising and some blunders in the beginning could easily be explained with inexperience and the army structure of the decision making process. However eventually trust changed into suspicion and now has become outright anger at the military. How did we get there?


Why is the military not trusted anymore?

It really depends whom you are listening to. Everyone had his or her moment, where the military really messed it up. But in short there are five issues.

Firstly, the military has kept up military courts for civilians and has kept people detained who were involved in the revolution. Today over 10′000 people are detained by SCAF in military custody, which is supposedly more than Mubarak detained in his 30 years in power. There is a couple of high profile cases including the Christian blogger Michael Nabil, who is on hunger strike and the activist, blogger and tech-pundit Alaa Abd-al-Fatah who celebrated his 30th birthday in prison last Friday and whose son will be born soon.

Freedom for Alaa Abd-al-Fatah

Secondly, there was the massacre of Maspiro. A group of Christians who demonstrated in front of the National TV building against suppression of Christians especially in Upper Egypt (the specific cause was the destruction of a church), were attacked by the army. During this attack 27 died, partially run over by armoured vehicles. The images of the army attack were really gruesome. To top this off, state TV asked all good Muslims to come to the street to defend the army against rogue Christians.

We are all the Martyr Mina Daniel (one of the demonstrators who died at Maspiro)

Thirdly, SCAF has proposed a number of supra-constitutional principles. These are pretty much a silent coup, through which the army would have protected themselves and their budget from any oversight and would have fixed the role of SCAF into the period after a potential presidential election in 2013. In theory SCAF was supposed to serve exclusively the transition and not afterwards.

Fourthly, SCAF has been dragging its feet with transitional justice. The court case against Mubarak is stalled. There has not been many other cases, except some extreme cases of corruption. The people who committed crimes against civilians before and during the revolution are mostly still free, most are even still employed by the police. On top of all that, a reform of the Ministry of Interior, the police and state security has not even been begun.

Fifthly, SCAF has messed up the transition itself. Not only is the transition already taking longer than it had originally promised, even more importantly a potential Presidential election will not be happening until 2013 and until then SCAF would be the primary source of power. Maybe even more importantly, the transitional government seems to primarily fill a front without having any real powers. More and more people feel that the military is trying to hold on to power indefinitely.

Lastly, SCAF has messed up preparations for elections and in consequence many people consider the elections as pretty much worthless, if not outright dangerous.

Links for this section: This is a TV talk with the TV presenter Yosri Fouda who covers some of the most important issues of the transition. This is a short video about what happened at Maspiro. Here is an interview with Alaa Abd-al-Fatah. Amnesty released an extensive report on SCAF’s human rights abuses, which they say in some cases exceed Mubarak’s record.


What is the problem with the elections?

Basically, the elections are overly complicated, there are still serious questions on procedure, the schedule has been crammed and there is no voter education and only little oversight and the elected bodies have no real powers. But let’s look at that one by one.

The Egyptian voters are supposed to elect two houses. The lower house is supposed to be elected between Monday, November 28 and January 10th in six rounds. The election is for reasons of oversight divided into three rounds. During each round a certain group of governorates elects their parliamentarians. For example, on Saturday Cairo, that is the city on the Eastern side of the Nile, will have elections. Gizeh, the city on the Western side, will only vote two weeks later in the second round. Each round includes a first election and a run off a week later.

Now, when it is your round to vote, you have two ballot papers. With one ballot paper you elect a party by proportional list system (think EU parliament election if you are from the UK, or German “Zweitstimme” i.e. second ballot). The size of the list constituencies varies between four and twelve. Cairo includes four constituencies, two with eight and two with ten candidates. The proportional system fills two thirds of all seats. With your second ballot you vote for a direct candidate. Well, actually you vote for two direct candidates, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Since the number of constituencies for the two systems is different, the direct candidate constituency and the proportional constituency you will be voting in are not identical. To inform yourself properly, you obviously need to know all that. The direct candidates need to be elected by an absolute majority and if there is none, there is a run off between the best two.

Now, to complicate things a little more, half of all parliamentarians need to have the status of a worker or farmer. That means that every second list candidate needs to have this status and if only one of your candidates gets a seat, it can happen that your second placed person on the list will get the seat to fulfill the farmer worker ratio. in the direct candidate election you always vote for two candidates, one who has normal status and one who is a worker or farmer. If you don’t, your ballot is invalid. But maybe more importantly, getting this status is under control of the local election commissions and has already been misused during the Mubarak era.

The second problem is, that it is still not absolutely clear which math will be used to allocate proportional seats. I will spare you the details, but this might make a massive difference, especially in smaller list constituencies. On top of that, after many promises, two days ago SCAF finally set a law which bans a part of former government party members from participating in the elections. It might be obvious, that this is a problem considering that elections should take place in less than a week, but to make this more extreme, only complete lists are allowed to participate for proportional voting and if one person is disqualified, the whole list loses its validity.

Nevertheless, there is more! The schedule is so crammed, that the final lists were only approved less than two weeks ago. Election symbols, which are enormously important in a society with may illiterate voters, were assigned even after that. That means that campaigning (with posters etc.) started in the best cases two and a half weeks before the first election round. When it comes to voter education, there is some information online, mostly Youtube videos explaining the process. Without access to the internet it is practically impossible to find out who are all the people running in a specific election district. And especially for a society like this, with many people who can not read and write, street campaigning is crucial. I still have not seen a mock-up ballot paper and most of my educated Egyptian friends are still confused about the process and who they can or want to vote for. And to top this off, international supervision is minimal and the extent of local supervision will depend on each voting centre and it is the army and the police who are tasked to guarantee the freedom of these election.

Just to make all of this even a little more obscure, the first indicators for the upcoming elections show that the preparation on the side of the elecitons commission and the state is less than ideal. The election for voters living abroad is happening this weekend. Voters are supposed to print their ballot themselves and send it to the embassy by mail. The problem is however that the ballot was not ready for download until the post offices closed (this was at least the case for voters in the US) and therefore it was impossible to mail the ballot in time. The schedule has now been extended. Also for the first round of voting, SCAF has announced that voting will now go on for two days instead of one, because the commission suddenly realised that having all voters vote on the same day is technically impossible. This problem has been pointed out by civil society and international observers for a while now and the fact that it is only adapted last minute show the bad preparation all too well.

But of course, does it even matter? The problem is, that without a constitution, the new parliament has no clear task or rights. As far as I understand the parliament can not even elect or remove a Prime Minister. And maybe even more importantly, it is still not clear who will write the constitution and how this body would be chosen. In the previously mentioned supra-constitutional principles, SCAF wanted to fix its control over the constitutional process.

As a side note, I should at least point out that electoral violence between the various election rounds has already been an issue in the Mubarak period. Many people were worried about this, even before the current events. On top of that, there were worries what would happen if the first rounds would show a Muslim Brotherhood majority and if the military would then potentially abort the elections altogether in a move like in Algeria. Supposedly on Friday evening one parliamentary candidate was stabbed in Cairo. If this is ture, it surely does not bode well for the coming days.

Links on this section: This is the report by IFES which explains it all in detail. This article gives you some of the highlights, explaining the most important problems. As this article shows, there is a substantial difference between elections in urban hot spots and the quieter, smaller towns.


What is the point of the protests?

Well, the situation on the ground is changing minute by minute. And with every person being killed, with every video posted to YouTube, people are less ready to compromise. The slower SCAF moves, the more people demand. However, from the previous points, you can guess that people demand:

  • a clear path of transition
  • an election which actually matters a transparent constitutional process
  • a reform of the Ministry of Interior
  • true transitional justice for members of the previous regime
  • freedom for political prisoners
  • no military courts from activists of the revolution

No to military government!

Last Friday the demand was basically for SCAF to revoke the supra-constitutional principles. By Saturday a clear date of transition with a presidential election no later than mid next year seemed to be the focus. Now it seems improbable people would take less than a so called “salvation government” to which SCAF needs to hand power.


What is the counterpoint?

It is important to understand that not everyone backs all this and not everyone who is in the square supports all these points at the same time.

The most important counter point is that elections need to take place because only an elected parliament would be able to create the necessary pressure, partially by using its international weight, to push against SCAF. This is supported by some activists and more importantly by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood who hopes to do well in the up-coming elections (I will discuss the Muslim Bortherhood in the next section).

Other counter arguments are things like:

  • Only the army can protect us from islamism, protect minority rights, etc.
  • We need to focus on the economy now, these protests are destroying Egypt
  • The army and the police are like a mother and a father and sometimes they have to be strict with their children
  • And of course… this is all instigated by invisible foreign hands!

Many people agree that the army hasn’t done a good job. But overall, probably most people agree there needs to be a transition. The question is only how this transition can be achieved. Are election, especially election which will be ongoing for months, the right path or does the country need an alternative solution?

However as friends remind me, it is key not to fall for the Tahrir bubble. Many Egyptians still believe the army and if the army makes minor concessions, will demand for people to withdraw from the square. The problem however is, what role does the silent majortiy really play and how strong is their support for the army? Yes, they might believe the army, but if the army tries to clear the square with massive casualties, that could change quickly. These people could be taken into account by having elections, which without a doubt is a good way to create representative bodies. However, what happens if the elecitons are skewed, intrasparent or even incomperhensible? It is a bit of a catch-22.

Nevertheless, the one hope there is with elections, would be to create a legitimised body to push against SCAF. However if that body would do so democratically or in the interest of its largest member, or if in case of a Muslim Brotherhood majority we could see an anti-democratic alliance between certain illiberal liberal and SCAF, is anyone’s guess.

Links for this section: This article by Shadi Hamid argues strongly in favour of having elections now.


So what is the story with the Muslim Brotherhood?

The key leadership of the Brotherhood in the moment says that elections should go ahead. There is three perspectives one can take on this:

The Brotherhood has been the most important opposition movement in Egypt in the last 50 years and has been building a grass-roots network for 80 years. The Brotherhood has been harshly suppressed in various periods of Egyptian history, especially under Nasser and Sadat. During the Mubarak period the Brotherhood was the only force which was able to get substantial numbers of parliamentarians elected to challenge the government. For all this time the brotherhood has fought to finally have a say in where Egypt should go. And now, days away from the elections which could finally bring upon this moment, people go to the street and put all of this at risk. It is not surprising that some in the Brotherhood feel that these protests are in truth against them and not against SCAF. After all their organisation has been targeted for decades.

The second perspective is more cynical. Yes, the Brotherhood has built up this wonderful grassroots network and therefore they are the only group which successfully managed to do some voter education and explain to their constituency the intricacies of the voting process. Additionally they were the most established and organised and had the least troubles to get their campaign off the ground. An early election and a complicated election with weird extra rules such as the farmer / worker quota profits the Brotherhood’s election results. They cynical view would say, the Brotherhood does not care if this election is fair, looks fair or is in any way comprehensible, as long as they win a lot of seats and they believe that the current arrangement is in their advantage.

The third perspective would be more to look at the options to act politically for the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood knows that when it comes to the street it can call people to the street, but it is much more difficult to call them back. It also knows that on a street level of politics the Brotherhood and the Salafi forces are not very distinguishable. They have however no interest in being mixed up with the Salafis (the two groups are as much alike as a born-again TV priest in the US and Ratzinger when he still was a professor). Therefore they need this election to replace their political instruments of street demonstrations with the parliamentary process and elections are the only way to do that.

Additionally it is important to see that the brotherhood itself is divided. Some of the Brotherhood Youth and the parties which have split from the main Brotherhood “Freedom and Justice Party” support the Tahrir protests.

Links for this section: This article by Issandr el-Amrani is an insightful perspective on the Muslim Bortherhood’s stance in the moment. A similar view is taken by Ashraf Khalil in the Wall Street Journal. In this discussion Dina Zakariya defends the opinion of the Freedom and Justice Party why elections need to happen now.


Where does the army stand?

Without quesiton, the army is not a coherent, cohesive and homogenous unit with one leader, one opinion and one direction. The army is however nearly a black box. We know little about division, motivations and interests of different army branches and members of SCAF. Some people hope for an anti-SCAF coup by younger officers and some believe that one part of SCAF will turn against the rest, but really, we do not know much.

Is the army the duck dancing on the head of the revolution or nation (often symbolised by the lion)?

The primary problem for the army to leave power are firstly previous crimes, especially corruption, which could potentially be followed up on and secondly the inter-linkage between the army and the economy. Nobody knows exactly how large the army share is of the Egyptian economy, but it is substantial. The army is involved in all kinds of businesses, from food production to refrigerators. But even more importantly, land which does not belong to anyone, belongs to the army. By controlling land, the army can control growth, development, etc. and has a direct influence on many economical and political ventures.

Any government which would be interested in improving the lives of normal Egyptians (people who live in towns most people abroad do not know, like Sohag and in parts of Cairo many Cairenes have never been to like Bulaq Takrur) would have to take the land from the army to use it for an intelligent and social spacial urban and agricultural development. However by actually writing all of these issues into the supra-constitutional principles, the army has drawn a lot of public attention to issues, which have remained pretty much undiscussed beforehand.

An additional divide which is important is the divide between the Ministry of Interior which controls the police and the intelligence on one hand, and the army on the other. The protests have shown at various stages that there seems to be friction in this regard, but it is unclear if the army is unwilling or unable to control the Ministry of Interior or if they are prjecting this divide to use the Ministry to crack down while appearing clean themselves.

Links for this section: This is an interesting article by Ursula Lindsey on the Egyptian police. In this short video interview a soldier explains why he is disenchanted with the role of the army.


What is the situation in the square?

Instead of giving you an overview of what is happening on the street, I will try to give you an idea of the organisation and who the groups are who are present on the square. The actual events are moving too quickly for me to update on a regular basis but you will find good timelines of events on the sites of the Guardian and Al Jazeera English. Nevertheless even the specific groups in the square are ever changing and depending on if there are street battles or not, if there is tear gas or not, etc. The level of organisation of the square is impressive and can only be understood when remembering that many of the structures have already been developed and practiced in January and February.

Basically the square is a small institution. At the edges there are people who make sure that everyone entering the square is checked, including their ID and their bags. This way the protestors make sure that no police can enter the square unseen and that no weapons are in the square. Once you get into the square there are separate groups taking care of all kinds of issues, including hospitals, distribution of food and water, collection of rubbish, defence against thugs and the police,  etc. For example there was always a group of people who created two human chains to keep a corridor open to transport wounded from the front line to the field hospitals.

The recent developments began when the police broke down a tent camp, which was in the middle of the Tahrir roundabout. The people who camped there could be considered as the seed of this second uprising. The people in this camp were primarily young activists who were taking a stand against the failures of SCAF and family members of those who were killed in the first revolution who protested against the lack of justice for their beloved. This core of protestors was relatively small, with a couple of dozen present at most times.

The second group which is important, is the diverse group of people who are actually fighting against the police. While I was on the square I have spoken with a good number of people who did fight at the front and it is impressive to see how varied they are. Most of the fighters are obviously young men, but you can find poor kids from the informal neighbourhoods who know fighting from their daily lives as well as computer science students from down town who fought the first time on January 25. Especially striking is the presence of the so called Ultras, which are the hard core football fans of Ahly and Zamalek. They not only are an important section of the fighters, they also man most of the motorbike ambulances which move permanently between the battle line and the field hospitals. Again, also among the Ultras you can find both, disenfranchised youth as well as students and workers.

To top this all of you have the supply chain which includes people in the square as well as outside. Via this system the specific needs of field hospitals and other institutions in the square are determined, material is collected all around Cairo and shipped by volunteers to the square. Most of the organisation happens via Twitter and Facebook. People even organise trucks to pick up the rubbish. Another key group are of course all the doctors who volunteer in the various field hospitals, often for 12-hour shifts and longer. In the middle of this, you can find a functioning micro-economy of street vendors who sell whatever you might need, including gas masks, tea and newspapers. Basically people take over organisational tasks, which you usually would find at a festival or something like that. Just that there is a constant influx of injured and that there is no central organisation.

While in this section I have exclusively discussed Tahrir square in Cairo, it is important to remember that there are events outside. There are demonstrations in many cities around the countries, many of which have been violent at various points in time with many injured and some killed. It is interesting to note that Twitter and Facebook seem to play a larger role for coordination in Cairo than elsewhere.

To give you an idea of the scale of the events: On November 26, the Ministry of Health numbers claimed that the last 8 days have caused 42 deaths and injured more than 3256. Both numbers are probably not complete, but these are the numbers by the government who simultaneously claims not to have used teargas or rubber bullets against protestors.

Links for this section: This article gives an interesting insight into the football ultra movement in Egypt and their political role. These are two videos to give you an idea of the brutality: the first video shows the police and army attacking protestors, the second shot shows how a soldier disposes a dead body on a trash pile. This blog post gives you an idea of the situation at the morgue in central Cairo.


What is happening politically?

The primary problem here is the divison of the political landscape and the gap between the Muslim Brotherhood and everyone else. In the direct aftermath of the revolution a plethora of new parties were created. Many of them are now allied in four big blocks, but others remain outside of that framework. So far the political parties have failed to speak with one voice and in result have failed to pressure SCAF to do anything. SCAF can play a game of “divide et impera” and the parties follow.

At the same time most famous leaders are too timid to take a real stance. Possibly they are afraid of risking their chance to be elected, pssibly they are opportunistic, possibly they are old men who have become less confrontational than the men on the street. Only few political leaders have called SCAF out for lies and accused them of their crimes. In a perfect example of this, on Monday Baradei and one other presidential candidate called Aboul Fotouh were on TV. They called for transition, but were reluctant to support the protests full force and were unable to find a common line.

A real change in this regard can not be expected as long as the Muslim Brotherhood remain on the sidelines. In my opinion the Tahrir protests would need some sort of political leadership now and this leadership has to be across the important movements and across the secular-religious divide, which basically means it needs to bring together the Brotherhood, Baradei, potentially Sawiras and most likely even the Salafi. Such cabinets have been proposed but it seem there is no instruments to push them forward. Basically for now SCAF dictates the direction and timeline with mostly silent support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I should also add a note on foreign influence: Yes, without question there is foreign influence, from America, the EU, but also from other Arab states. Most of these powers seem to navigate decisions with an extremely short-term perspective, mainly focussing on short-term stability. It is important to remember that Egypt plays a much bigger role in the region than for example Tunisia and in consequence, any developments here will be much more consequential for neighbouring countries including (of course) Israel.

Links for this section: This PDF starts with a map showing the fragmentation of the Egyptian political landscape.


Latest Developments (Evening of Sat Nov 26)

  • The protests seem to be transforming but it is unclear if that means they will just change or die down. There is now a protest in the Midan and a sit-in at the cabinet, but the latter has according to Twitter relatively low participation.
  • The elections seem to be happening after all, but many people are worried about the Chaos.
  • There is a new Prime Minister, who had been already a PM under Mubarak. It seems an odd choice and noone really understands the consequences.
  • At the same time, the new PM has no more powers than the last and the last truly had no powers at all. (He did not even have the power to step down, which he did I think 4 times until SCAF did accept the last time.)
  • For now violence in Cairo seems ot have ended, partially after the army built a wall in the most affected street, a truly obscure move.
  • It is truly obscure how bad the communication of SCAF is. Tantawi’s speech was a rhetorical desaster and the statements by various officers are nothing hsort of insanity.


Quo Vadis? (Evening of Sat Nov 26)

Many discussions in the moment start with the same line: “What is going on? What do you think? Where will this end up?” It is still rather obscure how the violence ended. It is even more obscure what that wall means. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood is very much in question. The liberals are now wondering if they should boycott the elections. I personally think that everyone should go to vote, because any boycott would not reach enough people to really make a point. Therefore boycotting will just give votes to whoever you would have not voted for.On the other hand I think people should go to vote to monitor the process and report any irregularities immediately.

I think there are three ways this could play out. There is still the option that elections are delayed for one reason or the other. What happens then, we shall see. There is the option that elections go ahead but break down due to chaos or violence. This seems a more and more probably option. If that happens, the Brotherhood will go crazy I presume. Lastly there is the chance that elections go through somehow and then the new parliament or the new strongest party has to engage SCAF.



Again, a well-wrtten article. Some questions – maybe follow up article!!

what is the army’s motive? apart from the usual “power grab” and “protection from their past sins”??

and is the army a “single headed unit” or are there factions more “moderate and less problematic” that can actually bring about “positive/true change”??

And if the elections between now and January do happen in some “proper” way – is there hope for this elected body to put pressure on the army?

Protests and killings are really sad – both have to stop. Egypt cannot go on like this. Maybe it’s important for people to focus on what is at hand (the elections now) and really get “good” people elected who then can “rewrite” the whole “transition/constitution” process??

why is the current civilian government not doing more in terms of putting pressure on the army? or have they exhausted all their “weak” power??

by Mack at 22/11/11 20:14

looks like the army caved in a bit?? people power still works?

by Mack at 23/11/11 19:25

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