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What Egypt's revolutionaries want this January 25

As revolution's one-year anniversary draws near, anti-SCAF activists scramble to explain their plans for a second Tahrir Square uprising - this time against military rule - to a weary public

Samir El-Sayed, Monday 23 Jan 2012
Egyptian protesters shout anti-military council slogans as they hold the national flag in Tahrir squ
Egyptian protesters shout anti-military council slogans as they hold the national flag in Tahrir square last November (Photo by: Reuters)
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Popular demonstrations planned for 25 January to demand an end to military rule and earlier-than-scheduled presidential elections – called for by more than 56 revolutionary movements, alliances and parties – have met with scepticism from much of the Egyptian public.

According to revolutionaries, popular perceptions of the planned event, which is timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Tahrir Square uprising that ended with the ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, revolve around three main axes. 

Firstly, the upcoming demonstrations have been linked with domestic and foreign conspiracies aimed at destabilising the country and overthrowing Egypt’s ruling military council, prompting fears that the event could be accompanied by violence. Secondly, the military authorities have called for a number of public festivities to mark the occasion.

Thirdly, revolutionary forces calling for the demonstrations have been unable to convince much of the public of the need to bring presidential elections forward, since Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has formally promised to hand over power to an elected civilian authority on 1 July, 2012.

Revolutionaries themselves, meanwhile, have yet to reach consensus regarding the coming handover of power or the final arrangements for the planned demonstrations. Nevertheless, most of the activists involved agree on the following:

Firstly, they reject all official anniversary celebrations planned for 25 January, asserting that the event’s chief objective is to maintain the course of peaceful protest. They strenuously warn their compatriots against succumbing to calls for violence made by infiltrators claiming to represent the revolution.

Secondly, they stress that the SCAF must begin accepting presidential nominations on 25 January in order to allow presidential elections to be held in April at the latest. Revolutionary forces also demand that power – including legislative and budgeting mandates – be transferred from the SCAF to the elected parliament, while executive power is to be handed over to the president of the republic once the latter is elected.

Some revolutionary forces are also calling on the SCAF to cede executive power to the speaker of parliament or an “interim president” elected by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Such a figure would be mandated with running the nation’s affairs for 60 days beginning on 23 January, during which presidential elections would be conducted. During parliament’s first scheduled session on 23 January, say revolutionaries, MPs would have a chance to discuss the proposal’s legal and constitutional implications.

Thirdly, if neither of these two demands are met, most revolutionary groups would then launch a “modified version” of last year’s 25 January uprising. This would begin with nationwide demonstrations on 25 January 2012, accompanied by calls for open-ended strikes in several cities. Revolutionaries hope that protests would then escalate into million-strong demonstrations similar to last year’s uprising, beginning with a “Second Friday of Rage,” according to a tentative proposal by the Union of Revolution Youth (URY). 

Demonstrations would then continue as they did last January, revolutionaries hope, but this time around, clashes with security forces would be assiduously avoided. Meanwhile, a committee would be drawn up mandated with protecting and securing protest sites from infiltration and guarding public property if necessary.

For the last several weeks, revolutionary groups have been issuing calls for the planned event via online social networks and with posters, flyers, videos, marches and door-to-door campaigning. This way, they are hoping to garner popular support for the sooner-than-scheduled handover of power, the affirmation of the revolution’s peaceful nature, and a swift end of military rule.

The upcoming 25 January demonstrations aim to achieve six key goals. First, to maintain pressure on the SCAF to relinquish power by 1 July at the latest, according to Tarek El-Khouli, spokesman for the April 6 youth movement (Democratic Front) and leading member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition (RYC). Second, to bolster the incoming parliament’s political clout ahead of the coming transfer of power.

Third, to prevent the SCAF from imposing its own preconditions for the handover of power or attempting to carve out a political role for itself through constitutional articles granting it authority over parliament or the president.

According to Mustafa Shawqi, a leading member of the Justice and Freedom (JF) youth movement, SCAF might attempt to do this by creating a “National Defence Council” – not unlike Turkey’s National Security Council – mandated with making executive decisions regarding issues of war, peace, constitutional legitimacy and the national defence budget.

Fourth, to thwart any possible deal between the SCAF and Islamist parties aimed at promoting a president with ties to the SCAF, according to El-Khouli. Fifth, to prevent economic catastrophe in the event that the current state of political uncertainty continues for another six months, said Haytham El-Shawaf, coordinator of the Alliance of Revolution Forces (ARF). The event’s sixth goal, said leading URY member Amr Hamed, is to foil on-going plots aimed at aborting the revolution.

Revolutionary demands for the immediate handover of power to a civilian authority have been a result of what has been called a “crisis of mutual distrust” between political activists and the SCAF. Critics attribute this crisis – which manifested itself most dramatically in recent clashes between anti-SCAF protesters and security forces in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to six overriding factors.

First, to the fact that the SCAF broke its promise to relinquish authority after six months of being in power; and second, to the fact that the SCAF’s vow to step down on 1 July, 2012 remains a verbal promise on which it could conceivably backtrack, according to Ahmed Maher, coordinator of the April 6 youth movement (Ahmed Maher Front).

Third, the crisis is attributed to the assumption that the SCAF will not respond to revolutionary demands except under significant popular pressure; fourth, according to Hesham El-Shal, coordinator of the Second Revolution of Rage (SRR), to the unsatisfactory timeline provided by the SCAF for ceding power to an elected authority.

El-Shal believes it is unrealistic to expect the respective political authorities to draw up a constituent assembly, draft a constitution, present it for public debate in advance of a popular referendum, and hold presidential elections between the first session of parliament on 23 January and the 1 July deadline for the handover of power.

Fifth, revolutionaries also attribute the crisis of confidence to recent heavy-handed attempts by the military to crush revolutionary activity. This includes the arrest, torture – even murder – of revolutionary activists by security forces and military personnel, Hamed asserted.

Sixth, according to El-Shawaf, the crisis is due to the SCAF’s continuation of Mubarak-era policies, such as the maintenance of former regime officials in state institutions and the promotion of political and economic “crises” that can be blamed on protesters.

Revolutionary forces, however, are themselves divided over the notion of handing executive authority over to parliament. One camp, for example, believes that presidential elections should be brought forward and that the speaker of parliament should be temporarily vested with presidential authority – this out of fear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which managed to capture nearly half of the People’s Assembly in recently concluded parliamentary polls, would exploit its electoral successes to wrest yet more power from the SCAF. This is the position adopted by the ARF, the SRR and April 6 (Democratic Front), along with various liberal forces and figures that fear Islamist political hegemony.

The second revolutionary camp, meanwhile, believes that early presidential elections would be illogical; that current political conditions can no longer sustain a delay in the transfer of power; and that political interaction with civilians is preferable to that with the military. This position has been embraced by 20 influential revolutionary groups, including the JF, April 6 (Ahmed Maher Front), the ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign, and the National Front for Justice and Freedom.

The JF’s Shawqi, for his part, believes there are only minor differences between the two proposals. He recommends that both initiatives be tabled simultaneously so as to give the military a choice in the matter. He asserted that overarching fears of Islamist political hegemony on the part of certain Egyptian liberal quarters are unconstructive symptoms of Islamophobia.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, rejects the idea of handing over power to the speaker of parliament – a position that the ARF’s El-Shawaf attributes to the group’s fear of being overwhelmed with new political responsibilities.

According to Shawqi, however, this is why the proposal was amended to allow for the transfer of power, either to the speaker of parliament or to an interim president elected by two-thirds of parliament. This, he explains, would give the Brotherhood more room to manoeuvre, allowing it to avoid footing the entire political bill.

“The Brotherhood initially rejected this proposal so as to avoid tensions with the SCAF,” said Shawqi. “But there’s no reason to reject it now, especially if it enjoys a degree of popular consensus.”

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