As I write, the cabinet of Egypt’s prime minister, Essam Sharaf, brought in amid much hope, but emasculated by the military and so now discredited – has resigned – and we are getting conflicting reports about whether the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (Scaf), the de facto president of Egypt, has accepted their resignation.
And right now, Tahrir is more full of people than ever. “Irhal! Irhal!” (Go! Go!) rings out once again; this time for Scaf. The one concession Scaf has definitely made is that it will refer last month’s alleged massacre at the Maspero state TV building to civilian (rather than military) courts. It’s not enough: Scaf has disgraced itself comprehensively over the past three days and must step down and hand over to a civilian president to form a government of national rescue.
The resignation of the cabinet comes in protest at the killing of protesters on the streets of the country. As I write, the tally of people the army and police have killed since Saturday stands at more than 30. At least seven people have lost eyes and over a thousand have been seriously injured. The military and the police have fired buck-shot, rubber bullets and live ammunition, and have used a new and vicious kind of gas. While Tahrir is full, the military and police attack protestors in Alexandria and Suez.
So why is this happening? And why so close to the elections scheduled for next week? Well, the immediate cause is that the police moved in heavily on Saturday morning to break up a sit-in of about 200 people. The protesters were some of the young people injured during the revolution in January and February and not yet treated, recompensed or helped to find work; not yet “dealt with” – as so much that was at the heart of the revolution has not been dealt with. The roughness of the police brought supporters in to protect the injured, and by midnight – when I went down to Tahrir – it was the familiar scene of battalions of central security forces (now renamed anti-riot troops) shooting and lobbing gas grenades at protesters who then pelted them with stones. The army stood by. From time to time it protected the security forces.
But the underlying reason; the reason the confrontations have blown up into all-out war so quickly is our now certain sense that Scaf – for all its protestations – doesn’t intend to give up power. Bear with the details for a moment: The proposed Scaf timeline for a handover was: parliamentary elections that take three months. Then parliament elects a founding committee to write the constitution. Six months for this. Then a referendum on the constitution. If positive, then elections for president. This keeps Scaf as acting president for 18 more months at least. More crucially: Scaf is in power while the constitution is being written. TonightLast night it has agreed to presidential elections by June 2012. But it has said nothing about the constitution.
Now the really important bit. Scaf foisted a deputy prime minister on to Sharaf: Dr Ali el-Selmi. A few weeks ago Selmi proposed that before elections all parties should sign up to a constitutional declaration that would, among other things: make the budget of the armed forces (including all arms deals) secret from parliament, government and president; and assign to the armed forces the role of “protecting the civil nature of the state”. So the armed forces could basically overthrow any government they didn’t like – while acting within the constitution.
Even more importantly: an appendix to this declaration says that Scaf may send any draft constitution back to the drawing board at any time; and that, if the founding committee fails to produce an agreed constitution within three months, Scaf may appoint its own committee to write it themselves.
All political forces have rejected this. But the people fear that one of the forces might secretly agree to it and the military would then make sure it got a good proportion of seats in parliament.
This is the military entrenching itself in power. Meanwhile, Scaf has shown itself to be an enemy of the revolution. Perhaps it wasn’t just close to the Mubarak regime; perhaps it was its heart. We don’t know. What we do know is that every administrative or legislative step that would have secured the revolution or brought its goals of human rights and social justice closer has been delayed or tripped up by Scaf – and that it has detained and court-martialled 12,000 young people and killed more than a hundred.
Perhaps beating up the revolution’s injured on Saturday was meant to bring the young people out on to the streets to get killed. The country would get so inflamed that Scaf would have a pretext to postpone elections. Perhaps. It really doesn’t matter. Because as things stand it’s clear that the chances are we will go through elections to emerge with a toothless parliament – like the toothless Sharaf government – that will then provide cover for Scaf to write a constitution.
So the crucial thing now is to stand firm until Scaf hands over power. To whom? To a government of national rescue headed by any one or more of our potential presidential candidates – and this government would run the elections. That is what the revolution is back on the streets of Egypt for.