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New Yorker: Back to the Square

Author: Wendell Steavenson
December 12, 2011


Wendell Steavenson unpacks the current tensions in Egypt's democratic transition, highlighting the unfolding dynamic between the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi hardliners, liberals, and the military leadership.

In Egypt, the euphoria surrounding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, last February, gave way, as the Arab Spring led into summer and fall, to a creeping realization that the regime had not been toppled at all. To many, it felt as if the popular revolution, waged by millions in the streets, were being turned into a soft coup. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the running of the country, and its chairman, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had been Mubarak's Defense Minister for twenty years, became Egypt's de-facto ruler. SCAF promised that it would serve in this role only until a new government could be formed, but it consistently placed obstacles designed to preserve the military's autonomy in the way of the transitional process, which entailed elections for a new parliament that would choose a committee to draft a new constitution, with Presidential elections to follow.

As dozens of new parties formed and re-formed coalitions, negotiations over the specifics of the process continued behind closed doors. SCAF maintained that a new parliament would have no authority over the Cabinet and that a handover to civilian authority would occur only after the Presidential elections, which it at one point suggested might be delayed until as late as 2013. Meanwhile, reforms that the revolution had called for were stalled, if not reversed. Twelve thousand people were summarily tried in military tribunals. Emergency law was augmented with new provisions. Activists and bloggers were jailed, and civil-society organizations were targeted in official investigations.

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