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Egypt: Who Calls the Shots?

Yet Negad al-Borai, an Egyptian lawyer and a human rights activist who has closely followed the military for two decades, believes that Tantawi’s pledge to turn power over to civilians is largely cosmetic. The most likely outcome, he said, is that Tantawi and his generals will allow free elections to create an independent parliament. It is unlikely, he says, that they would allow the presidency to slip from their grasp after sixty years. The military would need to retain executive power, al-Borai believes, to guarantee its control over the economy, although it will likely tolerate considerable power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. He imagines a sequence of events in which a prominent general would resign—according to the rules stipulated by the Egyptian constitution—and, with a good chance at winning, run for president as a civilian. Anan, sixty-three, a dynamic figure who has close ties to the US military, is one possible candidate. So is Omar Suleiman. The aging Tantawi, Mahmoud Zaher assured me, “has no political ambitions.”

After the revolution, the Supreme Council established a page on Facebook and has issued sixty-six proclamations to reassure the pro-democracy movement of its good intentions—although most of the movement then voted no when the military proposed what clearly seemed premature elections, which would mainly favor the formidably organized Muslim Brotherhood while other, more recent parties would be at a disadvantage. Proclamation 59 pledged that the military “will not take over power” in Egypt. Proclamation 65 announced a plan to budget $20 million for a “center for health and social care” for “the families of martyrs of the 25th of January,” as well as those injured during the protests. The most recent proclamation, which followed the late June clashes in Tahrir Square between protesters and security police, condemned the violence but carefully avoided blaming pro- democracy activists. The culprits, the council declared, were “dark forces…who have no excuse but the destruction of the national security and the stability of Egypt.” Yet the council’s Facebook pronouncements have failed to calm the suspicions that Tantawi and his council are up to no good.

On Friday, July 8, I attended the so-called Day of Retribution in Tahrir Square, a protest intended to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to arrest corrupt NDP ex-officials and police snipers, end military tribunals, and speed up the trial of Hosni Mubarak. When I arrived at around four o’clock, a fleet of orange ambulances were lined up at the edge of the square, and vendors were doing a brisk business selling bottled water and a succulent green fruit called teen shoki to demonstrators wilting in the hundred-degree heat.

The previous day the Judicial Investigation Commission, an independent office set up by the military prosecutor, had announced that another two dozen onetime civilian officials and allies of Mubarak would face murder and attemped murder charges. The announcement was widely seen as an effort to neutralize protest. But the crowds, if nowhere near the size of those that gathered at the height of the revolution, still extended to the edges of Tahrir Square. (Observers would later put the turnout at about 80,000.)

Two stages had been set up in the center of the square, and a pair of activists were shouting slogans over each other through loudspeakers. “Half a revolution is not enough,” one proclaimed. “The revolution is still in the square,” said another. I climbed onto one of the stages and, amid the racket of competing orators, met Khalid Talima, twenty-seven, a leader of a group called the Youth Coalition. He had met with Tantawi and two other members of the Supreme Council in late February, he told me, and found the exchange “comfortable.” But a March attack on Tahrir Square protesters by the army had changed his opinion, and he had boycotted further attempts by the Supreme Council to get in touch with the democracy movement. “Once it seemed like we could deal with each other,” he said. But now “we recognize that their interests are different from ours.” I asked him what he would say to Tantawi if he could meet him again. “I would tell him,” he told me, “that it is time for him to go.” At the moment, there is no sign that he will.

—July 20, 2011

Letters

Corrections September 29, 2011

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