The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square smells like piss. It is no surprise. After all, people had been living there in a tent camp for weeks. Yet the stench is also fitting for Egypt's current impasse. Egyptians -- soldiers, police, activists, soccer hooligans called "ultras," and others -- have abused this ostensibly hallowed ground at various moments since Hosni Mubarak's unexpected fall almost a year ago.

The latest affront to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir came this past weekend, just to the south of the square on Qasr al-Aini Street, where Egypt's parliament and cabinet buildings sit. There, military police and protesters engaged in a pitched battle using rocks, glass, metal, truncheons, and Molotov cocktails. At one point, an Egyptian soldier standing on the roof of the cabinet building literally appeared to urinate on the protesters below. (The symbolism was lost on no one.)
The proximate cause of Cairo's current spasm of violence was the military police's ill-advised effort to clear a relatively small number of protesters from in front of the cabinet building. The clashes, however, have revealed a deeper, more profound problem afflicting Egypt. The country has retreated from the moment of empowerment and national dignity that the uprising symbolized and is now grappling with a squalid politics and the normalization of violence.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle, which left 10 dead and hundreds injured, didn't seem to have a point. The young toughs who descended on Qasr al-Aini Street after news spread of the Army's efforts to clear the area seemed less concerned with principle than combat. Having cut their teeth and paid for it with the loss of 45 lives in late November clashes with the police and military, these kids seemed to be looking for payback. Qasr al-Aini Street bellowed with chants of "Death to the field marshal" -- a reference to Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) head Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi -- rather than the significantly more inspiring "Freedom! Freedom!" that echoed through the concrete canyon of Tahrir during the January uprising.

How did Egyptians get to this warped, demented, bizarro version of Tahrir Square? It is easy to blame the SCAF, as so many have, but the generals have also had a lot of help. Each of Egypt's primary political actors -- the military, revolutionary groups, Islamists, and liberals -- have contributed mightily to the country's current political impasse and economic collapse through a combination of incompetence, narcissism, and treachery. This has left a society on the edge, one in which minor traffic accidents become near riots, soldiers beat women with reckless abandon, and protesters burn the building containing some of Egypt's historical and cultural treasures.

The military command, which handled the 18-day uprising so well, has compensated for its lack of political acumen with brutality. The combination of both suggests a military command adrift with no real grasp of the political dynamics of the society they lay claim to protect and lead. It is not clear to whom, exactly, Egypt's generals were listening in February when they drew up plans for handing power over to civilian rule, but they have presided over a transition that has sown confusion and heightened tension -- all in the name, ironically, of stability.

The sorry state of Egypt's transition reveals a central problem with the generals' administration of the country. They come up with ideas with the help of a domestic intelligence apparatus that is more brutal than shrewd, toss them out into the public square, gauge how people react, and adjust accordingly. This is terribly destabilizing because rather than doing what is right, they try to situate everything they do in that sweet spot of public opinion. When the fortunes of the revolutionary groups were high, the SCAF responded to their demands. Now, the officers are dialed into that mythical, great "silent majority" that they believe is opposed to the protests.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on December 19th, 2011.

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