By Clive Bradley
Protests in Egypt left at least 28 dead and hundreds of injured.
On Friday 18 November, Tahrir Square filled with demonstrators, frustrated with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which has held power since Mubarak’s removal in February.
Parliamentary elections are due to start on 28 November — though several parties have declared a boycott in light of this weekend’s events. The army, initially reluctant to give up power, is promising a new President by June 2012 and has accepted the resignation of the current cabinet.
When the army intervened during the revolution at the beginning of the year it was widely seen as a “people’s army”, in contrast with the hated police. But nine months of SCAF rule have seen more, not less, repressive legislation, 12,000 arrests of activists (usually tried by military, rather than civilian, courts), and a gradual slowing down of the democratic transition.
The clampdown on Sunday night, 20 November, was described by presidential hopeful and Nobel laureate Muhammed al Baradei as a ‘slaughterhouse’. Whatever lingering illusions many protestors may have had in the “people’s army” have now, it seems, been lost.
In fact, despite the ferocity of the repression, it failed to disperse Tahrir Square. On the contrary: the protestors fought back. According to The Guardian: “Outnumbered and outfought, the soldiers fled, though not before some had been captured.”
Over recent months popular mobilisations had been small and increasingly fractious.
The past few days have seen a major revival in the protests, and perhaps a new phase in the revolution itself.
The first day, Friday November 18, was dominated by religious forces, both the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative Salafist movement. The Brotherhood’s mobilisation itself marks a significant breakdown in its relations with the military government. Some reports suggested that many liberal and secular movements did not initially participate in the demonstration on Friday (which is the Muslim Sabbath).
By Saturday that had clearly changed, though the weight of different opposition movements in Tahrir Square is hard to judge. For sure, however, this was not simply a confrontation between the army and the Islamists.
Protests have spread throughout Egypt — first, along with those in Tahrir, calling for faster progress towards democracy and the release of political prisoners (several prominent bloggers associated with the January revolution are currently under arrest, for example), and now demanding an end to the clampdown.
It remains to be seen how these events will affect the scheduled elections.
The revolution in January took Egypt’s rulers, and most of the rest of the world, by surprise.
Inevitably, the initial revolutionary enthusiasm had ebbed somewhat in the months since. Growing frustration with the army is mirrored in growing impatience with “the revolution”. In August, when soldiers cleared protestors out of Tahrir Square, local shopkeepers — who had actively supported the “Arab Spring” — cheered. Election candidates calling for “the revolution to continue”, including in poor neighbourhoods, have met opposition, even hostility. There has been no change in the terrible economic circumstances most Egyptians face, and for many people “the revolution” has meant only greater instability and chaos.
But a powerful labour movement has emerged. For sure one reason the SCAF has been only half-hearted in its repression until now — or rather, has alternated between repressions and concessions; introduced anti-protest laws but failed on the whole to implement them — is because of the continued strength of this new movement and the strikes it has organised.
Egypt is the Middle East’s most populous country. It was in many ways the epicentre of the “Arab Spring”.
What happens in the next few weeks and months could determine the evolution of the revolutionary wave across the whole region.