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A perfect Juggling Act

14 Apr

"You can't hurry love, no you'll just have to wait, she said love don't come easy, it's a game of give and take" - The Egyptian version of the Supremes are a group of 19 gentlemen. Image:

If Egypt were a soap opera, this week’s episode would surprise with a rather dramatic turn of events: Hosni, Alaa and Gamal Mubarak are subpoenaed, Hosni apparently suffers a heart attack during questioning, and in the end all three Mubaraks are detained for at least 15 days, leaving us with one question:

What the hell kind of stunt was that?

Since the “Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” took over government affairs in February, observers feared the military rule would stifle people’s demands for democratization. My personal guess was that the military would indeed try to stabilize their rule and stall any progress, but that they would have to watch out for renewed public anger and counter reactions from pro-democracy forces.

I brazenly claimed the new ruling forces would resort to a juggling act of securing their influence on one hand, while on the other hand complying with only those popular demands that don’t interfere with their power. Two months after his ousting, Mubarak’s prosecution is a nice example of exactly this.

Egypt’s ruling “Supremes” have so far carried out a couple of reforms: Presidential elections were announced to take place in November 2011, the emergency law was to be repealed, and on March 19th, Egypt held its histrocal constitutional referendum. These are meant to keep the public happy and shtum. Because the “Supremes” have also proved to stand for rather spooky stuff: They issued a decree to ban demonstrations, enforcing a sentence of one year in prison and up to € 60.000 for instigators and rioters. The Egyptian army has been charged with the mistreatment and torturing of protesters. And needless to say, any deeper democratization progress is minimal: The new constitution is basically the old one with a new cover, the Council is hesitant to prosecute Hosni Mubarak, and of course the emergency state has not been lifted until this day. Instead of pushing reforms the country needs, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces had the brilliant idea of having 26-year old blogger Maikel Nabil arrested for critcizing the Egyptian army on his blog. See, not only are the military forces juggling to keep their power, they apparently also need to show off their power.

After this arrest, all the “Supremes” had to do was lean back and watch public discontent explode right in their face.

And it did. Last Friday people filled up Tahrir Square, as they have every Friday since February, and demanded Hosni Mubarak’s indictment and prosecution right away. The army’s reaction to Friday’s demonstrations was brutal. So brutal indeed, that during the week-end, the Supreme Council felt compelled to deny all accusations of using excessive force or live ammunition on its people. The night from Friday to Saturday provoked discussion, anger and indignation, and Egypt may very well witness a new round of public outrage. As a consequence, the Supreme Council, well aware that the tide might turn against them, seemingly overnight resorted to the one action that they know will buy them some time and a shred of credibility.

They summoned the ousted Pharaoh for questioning.

Now we will have to wait and see whether this tactic works out. If the “Supremes” manage to reconcile with the public through Mubarak’s trial, the ruling powers are safe, at least for the moment. Should the trial not manage to shut up the public, the “Supremes” need to rethink – either more violence, or more concessions. Bringing Mubarak to trial was a smart move on their part however, as it might once again divide the angry public. And it might satisfy some critics for good, as Mubarak on trial might be everything they’ve ever wanted. That indeed would be a huge setback for pro-democracy.

In any case: Ousting the Pharaoh and replacing him with the “Supremes” was an important first step. Any further steps of democratic progress however will only happen if they are insistently wrested from the hands of the “Supremes”, piece by piece. That is a truly Herculean task, but I still believe the Egyptian people are on the right track.