It isn’t just the slow pace of reform of the police that has raised the ire of protesters. They have also demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his cabinet. Sharaf does not possess the “revolutionary character to fulfill the ambitions of many Egyptians aiming for freedom and social justice,” said one prominent protest group. That may be, but Sharaf is also operating in a political straitjacket. The nation is riven by factionalism and overseen by a military that is jealously guarding its historic prerogatives in government and the economy. If the pace of reform is slow, it is a reflection of the glacial pace of evolution of civil society in a nation that has functioned as a military dictatorship for 60 years.
The postponement of elections is a good example of this evolution. The reason for the delayed vote is to give time to the dozens of political parties who will participate in the election to establish grassroots networks and organize their supporters. Many of the secular parties feared that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had an organized political presence in Egypt for decades, would have too big an advantage in the election, and petitioned the military for the delay. The Brotherhood, for tactical reasons, went along with the postponement, considering the fact that there is a tremendous level of distrust for its motives. Also, the Brotherhood will only be contesting 49% of the seats in parliament. The group also appears to have its own problems, as less fanatical elements are splitting off from the main party, making it more difficult for power to be consolidated.
Sharaf is trying, on the surface at least, to meet some of the protesters’ demands. He has promised a cabinet shakeup and has pledged to increase reform efforts, especially in the interior ministry. Already, the deputy prime minister, Yahia Gamal, has resigned, according to the cabinet’s website. And on Tuesday, the former interior minister and two other Mubarak-era government officials were sentenced to prison on corruption charges. Mubarak himself, recovering from a heart attack, is preparing for his August trial while claiming his innocence. “These accusations are not true at all. I would never participate in the killing of Egyptian citizens,” Mubarak told investigators. A government commission found otherwise, accusing the former president of knowing that his security forces were armed with live ammunition and that they would use it on the protesters.
Despite these apparent concessions, the protesters are in no mood to compromise. Several groups have issued a call for elections of a civilian “transitional council” — perhaps to be headed up by the Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. But the military, in its statement issued earlier in the week, reiterated its support for Sharaf and dismissed calls by the protesters in language that suggests some kind of confrontation might be on the horizon.
The reaction to this protest among ordinary Egyptians is mixed. Thirty men with sticks and knives attacked the protesters earlier in the week, wounding 6 before they were driven off. Most Egyptians appear to be more patient than their brothers in Tarhrir Square, and while sharing the goals of the revolutionaries, it is widely believed that the constant upheaval has affected the economy for the worse — especially tourism, which is one of the country’s biggest industries. While the protesters say they need to constantly pressure the military to make good on its promises, most ordinary Egyptians hope that the situation will stabilize soon so the economy can be given a chance to recover.
That attitude could change in a heartbeat if there is a serious confrontation between the military and the protesters on Friday. The Egyptian people would no doubt take to the streets again in the hundreds of thousands if necessary to protect the rights they have won so far.
“The country is sitting on a barrel of gunpowder,’’ said Hossam El-Hamalawy, an activist and blogger. “The point of confrontation is getting closer and closer.’’
If that is the case, the protests on Friday should be seen as both an opportunity and a warning — an opportunity for the military and civilian authorities to prove they have matured as a society and will allow peaceful people to assemble and express their views. However, it could also be a warning that if blood flows once again in Tahrir Square, no one will be able to predict where the revolution will go from there.
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