The violence during the wee hours of Saturday morning in Tahrir Square in which two protestors were killed, 71 were injured, and at least seven officers were arrested, marks a new and disturbing turn in the Egyptian effort to build a new political order. The details are sketchy, but according to eyewitnesses, as many as 20 uniformed military officers joined demonstrators demanding, among other things, that President Mubarak and his family be put on trial, the dissolution of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, and cancellation of the Emergency Law. When the demonstrators—along with the dissident officers—remained in Tahrir after the 2am curfew, army units moved in to disperse the crowd apparently using lethal force.
Why would the military do this? After all, they had been welcomed in Tahrir as saviors during the 18 days of massive protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office. There was enormous goodwill between the soldiers and officers on the ground in downtown Cairo and the demonstrators. It does not seem wise to risk a breach between the military and the people at this sensitive moment. Yet, as I wrote on January 31, 2011, however, there was little reason to actually believe that the army was with the people.
Saturday morning’s violence was a function of four factors:
1) The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces wants order and stability, two things they have not been able to achieve since Mubarak’s fall. With all that has been happening in Libya, the Egypt news has largely fallen off the front pages, but it has not been all rainbows and unicorns in Cairo. The country has experienced strikes and protests almost continuously since mid-February. The military has consistently called for an end to this activity, appealing to Egyptians’ sense of national duty to no avail. The last two Fridays have brought tens of thousands of people back to Tahrir Square to “Save the Revolution,” primarily from the military.
2) From the perspective of the senior command, the presence of uniformed military officers joining the protestors in Tahrir on Friday-early Saturday had to be dealt with severely, lest other members of the armed forces get similar ideas. This would put the military as an organization at great risk.
3) Since the uprising and Mubarak’s flight to Sharm el Sheikh, the revolutionary groups have had the Supreme Council over a barrel. Fearing a repeat of the massive protests that brought the president down, the military has caved on almost every issue the revolutionary groups have demanded, primarily because Field Marshal Tantawi and his fellow commanders have taken violence off the table. It seems they have now put it back on in an effort to demonstrate that they are prepared to use all the means available to them to defend the authority of the state. This is a risky strategy. As we have seen all over the region, the state’s use of violence against protestors has had a galvanizing effect on society, intensifying opposition to leaders.
4) Most importantly, the military and the revolutionary groups are engaged in a battle over competing legitimacies. The officers apparently believe— harkening back to 1952—that the armed forces remains the source of legitimacy in the Egyptian political system. Apparently, they haven’t noticed that not only were Egyptians rebelling against Hosni Mubarak when they turned out by the millions demanding change, but they were also rising up against the regime, i.e. the political system, he led. The revolutionary groups that were responsible for the revolt believe that they represent the Egyptian people and as a result, they collectively represent the legitimacy of a new political order. The problem is that neither the military nor the revolutionaries have the ability to impose their will on the other group.
As if it was not difficult enough already, as a result of Saturday morning’s violence it just got a lot tougher for Egyptians to build the decent, peaceful, and democratic political order so many of them desperately want.