Egypt's military rulers bent marginally under the street clamor seizing Cairo this week but were nowhere near cracking. In fact, they cashed in on the turmoil to win allies.
From Friday, Nov. 18, black-uniformed riot police fought back the fiercest demonstrations Cairo's Tahrir Square had seen since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign on Feb. 11. Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said and other Nile Delta cities joined the fray. As the week wore on, police tear gas and night sticks clashed with protesters' stones and Molotov cocktails, leaving at least 35 dead and more than 2,000 people injured on both sides.
Street fury peaked Tuesday, Nov. 2. It started ebbing that night after Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruling Egypt since Mubarak's fall went on television to promise a new civilian salvation government. He also pledged that presidential elections would be held by the end of June 2012 instead of some time in 2013.
At first, the largely youthful rioters rejected the compromise he offered and insisted that the generals step down this minute. But as the gas clouds dispersed, calm descended on the emblematic protest square. By Wednesday night, Nov. 23, the shouts were stilled by a ceasefire which continued to hold Thursday and will most likely survive Friday, the traditional day for Middle East street action.
This week therefore did not see a second Egyptian uprising – or even the rebirth of the first one, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources. By playing their cards right, the military council was able to tame it in less than a week.
Four widely divergent groups of hell raisers
The SCAF had two powerful cards to play. One was its popularity. The generals enjoy a 60 percent rate of popular support. It has faded from the 90 percent they garnered in March-May, but is still a solid majority.
The second was the anxiety of all Egypt's mainstream political entities and persons, including the dominant Muslim Brotherhood, for the parliamentary elections to start on time, next Monday, Nov. 28, and continue uninterrupted for the full four-month cycle until March, 2012.
They all appreciated that the fall of the military council would spell chaos, so jeopardizing the ballot and dashing their hopes of winning power.
That is not to say that they all failed to appreciate the leverage the street has gained in the past year – only that this time they could tilt the situation in their favor by joining forces and pulling together.
It is therefore important to underline the differences between the Tahrir Square uprising of February and the unrest of November.
In February, the first surge of anti-Mubarak protest was spearheaded by liberal, left-leaning and pro-democracy forces. Still politically underdeveloped, they were backed by likeminded organizations in the United States and Western Europe.
The core of the November movement is essentially much looser, less coherent and more volatile, because it is made up of four divergent groups:
1. The February Revolution's Old Guard, a smallish group of about 300-500 people who were jailed, injured, and tortured in the period following Mubarak's downfall, i.e., after the military council took power.
2. Bloggers, a random assortment of voices with political traction in the big towns but no organization behind them – least of all leaders.
3. Young activist members of liberal and left-leaning organizations.
4. Hoodlums and criminal elements with an interest in sowing mayhem as fertile ground for gainful crime.
Muslim Brotherhood withdraws support from the protesters
Appreciating the essential weakness behind the stridency of this protest, Egypt's mainstream political leaders ignored the shouts from the street: "Come to Tahrir! Tomorrow we'll overthrow the field marshal!" And the calls for a million-man march against the military council.
Instead, Tuesday, Nov. 22, they all sat down around a table with the generals to hammer out ways and means of clearing the streets.
It was attended by the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, the MB's Freedom and Justice Party, the Wafd Party, the Free Egyptians led by the Copts' Naguib Sawiris, and even the Salafists' Nour Party.
They were joined by four presidential hopefuls, Amr Moussa, Mohammed ElBaradei, and the Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
The way to compromise was opened by Egypt's largest and best organized political grouping, the Muslim Brotherhood, deciding Monday, Nov. 21, not to take part in the protesters' March of a Million. Their leaders beat a hasty retreat from their earlier support for the Tahrir Square legions when the SCAF just hinted at a possible postponement of the Monday vote if the mayhem continued and they saw their big chance of gaining power receding in the vague distance.
The military council also compromised on the date of the presidential election, bringing it forward to June 2012. It was previously left open-ended for some time in 2013 as the culmination of parliamentary elections and the formulation of new constitution to be ratified in a national referendum.
A coalition of convenience
In any case, the new date is unrealistic. Egypt still has no written constitution and no procedures for electing the president's election and defining his authority have been determined.
But Field Marshal Tantawi decided it was worth fixing an earlier date to rally the support of the four presidential contenders and they all agreed to throw this bone to the protesters as a step toward defusing the rowdy standoff.
All parties at the round table made certain concessions for the sake of a coalition of convenience around three points of accord:
– The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will enshrine its status by a set of extraordinary constitutional principles for placing the military outside the jurisdiction of government and legislature. Without foregoing this ambition, the SCAF appreciates that this objective cannot be dictated over the heads of the politicians and will only be achieved by collaboration and far-reaching concessions. The hard truth at the bottom of generals' compromise is that neither the military nor the politicians can control the street or rule without the other.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's analysts therefore predict that while the two camps have plenty to argue about, they were forced by the street unrest to rise above their differences and forge a solid basis for cooperation.
Liberal, left-wing parties sidelined
– The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was rudely awakened from its absolute confidence that a majority in both the general and presidential elections was in their pockets and Egypt stood at the threshold of its first Islamic president, prime minister and parliamentary majority.
The violent protest movement taught the MB that nothing can be taken for granted. Their strategists understand they must work very hard in the years ahead to cement their grip on government and parliament. Meanwhile, they will have to be subordinate to the elected president whose power will depend very much on the military's backing.
Both functions are therefore here to stay and the Muslim Brotherhood will have to learn to live with them.
-The liberal, democratic and left-wing Egyptian parties, including the Wafd, the Social Democratic Party and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, were the vanguards of the anti-Mubarak revolution in February – only to be pushed to the sidelines by the Muslim Brotherhood.
They do not appear to have read Egypt's emerging political map and may keep on trying to get the masses out on the streets to seize the whip hand of discourse in Egypt. Their success will decline as more powerful forces keep them at bay.