Middle East analyst Bayless Parsley examines the impact violent clashes between Egyptian protesters and security forces will have on upcoming parliamentary elections and how Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces plans to respond.
Clashes between Egyptian protesters and security forces in own town Cairo entered their third day Monday, as Tahrir Square has once again become the scene of violent demonstrations against the Egyptian regime. The timing is significant, as parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin in exactly one week. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has vowed to go ahead with the vote but if the current conditions continue for the next few days it may lead to a postponement.
Many in the streets are labeling this latest round of demonstrations – the most violent since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak – as the “February 12 Revolution,” a reference to the day after the long-time president was forced out of office. At this point, hardly anyone in Egypt thinks that there was actually regime change in the country on Feb. 11, and that explains the purpose behind this new wave of protests — to finish the job. Those who have been combating security forces in Tahrir and its many side streets are largely indifferent, if not hostile, to the notion that holding parliamentary elections will help them achieve this goal.
The problem for this segment of the Egyptian population is the same as the one that was evident in January and February — their numbers are far too small. Egypt is a country of more than 80 million people, Cairo, 7 million, and not even the peak crowds that have amassed in Tahrir since the protests first began have indicated that a true popular revolution against the regime is at hand. Though the crowd on display in the square on Nov. 18 appeared to be as large as some of the biggest demonstrations to date, the numbers that have been battling security forces since the violence began Saturday morning have ranged only in the tens of thousands.
The composition of the protesters is as important as their size. The Nov.18 demonstration was composed of predominately Islamists – followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist parties. They were primarily protesting against the SCAF’s attempts to hardwire into the new constitution safeguards for the military and restrictions on the religious nature of the state, both hindrances to their potential power in the future. But as night fell on Nov. 18, after some half-hearted concessions by the government, the Islamists vacated the square. They were thus not part of the sit-in that was dispersed with violence by security forces early Saturday morning.
Islamists have for the most part stayed out of the fray that continued throughout the weekend as well. This could change as popular pressure builds on the Brotherhood and other Salafist leaders to stand in solidarity with the protesters. But as of now, the official stance of the Brotherhood remains that violent opposition to the regime be restrained, and that everything possible be done to ensure that elections take place as scheduled on Nov. 28.
The reason for this is simple — the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is expected to do quite well in the polls, certainly better than any of the myriad secular parties. The same goes for other Islamist parties who are well organized. They are fully aware that a popular vote will not lead to a regime change. But in conducting a cost-benefit analysis, the Brotherhood knows that the most optimal outcome would be the small gains that elections would yield. Rhetoric aside, the group knows that regime change in Egypt is a long-term goal, and that getting into a direct confrontation with the military in Tahrir is not a viable tactic at this time.
Just as the Brotherhood wants the elections to take place, so does the SCAF. In the military’s mind, holding the vote would give it an opportunity to convey a message of sincerity to the segment of the population that has remained off the streets during the last several months. The military wants to brand the demonstrators as the source of Egypt’s economic and political woes, a message that plays well with a large swathe of Egyptians who simply want a return to normalcy, and who view the protesters in Tahrir as the main impediment to that goal. The SCAF can thus brand itself as the guarantor of stability in the country, able to work hand in hand with the newly elected parliament in transitioning towards civilian rule.
The SCAF has no intention of ever actually allowing this to happen, of course. And that is what is generating a lot of the clashes with security forces at the moment. The same people that believed they had carried out a revolution in February now find themselves unable to attain power at the polls. They are now struggling to do so in Tahrir. The military will meanwhile exploit the anger on the streets, portraying itself as the only institution capable of bringing stability back to the country.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.