Will the Egyptian Army Work With the People?

On the surface things are getting back to normal.

Shops have reopened, and the dust and din are back to choking, deafening levels. Motorcyclists have returned to their dangerous habit of speeding along pavements to avoid the epic traffic jams.

On Saturday I was able to sip tea peacefully at the recently revamped Hurriya (Freedom) Café in Bab El-Louk, where just a week before protesters were fighting pitched battles with the hired thugs of the ruling Hizb al-Watani (National Democratic Party).

The atmosphere retains the hope of the revolutionary moment. The departure of President Hosni Mubarak on Friday evening, greeted by rapturous and noisy celebrations that continue days later, have filled Egyptians with rediscovered dignity and hope for a better future.

But under the surface things are far from normal. The victory of the protesters has also left a political vacuum and much uncertainty and apprehension about the future.

The vacuum is being filled for now by two unlikely and unwilling partners who coexist in an uneasy but suspicious mutual acceptance.

On the one hand, there’s the Supreme Military Council, mostly senior army officers approaching retirement age. They are now communicating with Egyptians through terse daily military communiqués in the classical Arabic of officialdom, broadcast on state TV and radio.

On the other hand are the protesters, young men and women, media savvy and politically creative, determined to create conditions for a more inclusive, democratic future based on respect for human rights. Their uprising represents a generational revolution as much as a political one. They communicate in colloquial Egyptian with rowdy slogans and chants, or through Facebook and Twitter.

The tense relationship between these two poles was revealed on Sunday morning when the military police arrived in Tahrir Square, opened it to Cairo’s ubiquitous traffic and told the remaining protesters to leave.

After a relatively good natured if argumentative and noisy standoff that lasted for several hours, the military police withdrew.

Later in the day came military communiqué No. 5 suspending the Constitution and dissolving Parliament — two measures many of the protesters and their supporters may welcome because both were seen as discredited relics of the defunct Mubarak era.

It seems likely that even as the physical presence of the protesters dwindles in the face of the onslaught of traffic on Tahrir Square, the political standoff between the protesters and the military will continue in the coming months.

But the transition from the repressive Mubarak era (so well showcased by the violence unleashed on the protesters in the past three weeks) to a new democratic Egypt is by no means assured.

A smooth transition depends in part on the extent to which the military rulers can convince Egyptians that they are serious about making a clean break with the abusive system of the past three decades and creating the conditions in which Egyptians can build a free and democratic Egypt.

For all their respect for the army as an institution, many Egyptians suspect with good reason that the new military rulers continue to represent the interests of the old ruling apparatus.

Furthermore, with the suspension of the Constitution and the dissolution of parliament, the Supreme Military Council now rules without any formal check on its power.

For their part, the protesters are now conscious of their ability to mobilize people power and bring Egypt onto the street at the first sign that their broad aim of democratic transformation is being undermined. People power is the only effective check on the power of the military.

Of course there is much work to do to achieve a stable transition from repression to democracy. Clear commitments from the military, in word and deed, to uphold the rule of law, release detainees, reject the barbaric practice of torture that has done so much to trigger these protests, and respect human rights — including freedom of expression and assembly — are absolutely vital in the current circumstances.

The pro-democracy movement — truly one with massive popular support — demands these commitments. And indeed they are necessary if the transitional authorities are to create the conditions necessary for free, fair and credible elections.

Such commitments will also help to build trust and stability in this risky period of military rule. Let’s hope that we will see some real commitments on human rights and accountability in the next military communiqués.

By Tom Porteous, the director of Human Rights Watch in Britain. He was previously a foreign correspondent in Cairo.

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