What went wrong?

Last February, SCAF held all the cards. The military was the only state institution to survive the “revolution” with its credibility intact, even enhanced. The people and the army were one hand. SCAF’s actual powers, freed from the pretense of a civilian government to answer to, grew and multiplied.

What the hell happened? The fight that the police and then the military picked with a handful of wounded Jan-Feb protesters asking for compensation last Saturday Nov 19th, on the eve of overhyped but important-for-show elections, showed an oddly weak and defensive SCAF. The scenes of the past week — flying rocks and heroic motorbike ambulances in front of the American University gate, clouds of poison gas all over downtown (and blowing into Garden City and as far as Mohandiseen), the army and the police acting as “one hand” against a diverse and incredibly brave group of protesters — all these things were eminently avoidable.  Everything about the Revolution’s second wave (link=Ahdaf Soueif’s eyewitness account) showed how much credibility SCAF had lost; every wave of gas lost it some more.

Was the military (SCAF) unable to control/restrain the police (Ministry of Interior)?  Or did it order the brutality? Either way, the response looks reptilian: not calculated violence but the last stand of a cornered lizard. Even the people going about their lives elsewhere in the city who say they don’t want an immediate end to military rule (“This time I am not with the square”) can find nothing good to say about SCAF, except that they really can’t imagine an alternative, they want “stability,” or they want elections to go forward on schedule. When pushed on what kind of stability they’ve actually seen in the past nine months of SCAF rule or what how much power (the word on everyone’s lips is صلاحيات) the elected parliament would actually have, nearly everyone I’ve talked to immediately folds.

Yet despite the sarcasm of commentators on yesterday’s pro-SCAF counter-demo in the neighborhood of Abassiya  (my friend Mohamed Shoair, hilariously, on Facebook: “Breaking News: Abassiyya Leaders Relocate Their Million-Man Demonstration to a Friend’s Apartment”) these were citizens, not rent-a-crowds.  Such remnants of support just underline how many Egyptian people wanted to trust and believe SCAF after Feb 11.  Had the generals played their cards right over the spring and summer, they could have negotiated everything they wanted: a peaceful wealthy retirement, immunity from prosecution, probably continuing behind-the-scenes control over the economy (at least through the ends of their own lifetimes), and of course the people’s lasting gratitude as the saviors of the Egyptian Revolution.  Instead there was a series of weird policy leaps (into bed with the Brotherhood, then briefly out, then apparently in again with the run-up to the elections that only the Brotherhood has persisted in supporting) and various high-handed edicts and “constitutional” or “meta-constitutional” declarations. And then Maspero. And then the poison gas. Okay, SCAF has 30-plus members and God knows how many advisors and I’m sure they’re not unanimous (why haven’t we seen any resignations??) but… no matter what their internal dynamics, the net idiocy is impossible to comprehend.

Yesterday, as we were headed out for a nearly-all-Egyptian dinner party to celebrate Thanksgiving (!), Al-Jazeera Mubasher was showing an estimated 1.5 million people in Tahrir, shouting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير – the people/ want/ the downfall of the field marshal.  A few mins earlier it was showing prime-minister-appoint Kamal Ganzouri’s press conference, declaring that he would have “full powers” (under SCAF) to form his government (on which he offered no details) and pursue his policies (ditto).  Images of Tahrir alternated and interwove with the ongoing full-scale massacre in Syria: no longer so distinct.

On Friday my son’s swimming instructor at the Shooting Club showed me (from inside the pool) his scars from flying rocks and a rubber bullet; the lifeguards all left immediately after work to head to Tahrir; so, for that matter, did some of the professors hosting my lectures and some of the dinner guests at Thanksgiving.

This morning’s newspapers took various spins on the two demonstrations yesterday (photos soon). Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed the nation was “torn.” Al-Gumhuriyya showed scenes of both demos framed to look as though they were of similar size, under the misleading headline “One prayer, one nation.”  Brotherhood’s new daily Hurriyya Wa 3adala (Freedom and Justice, same as their political party) led with the rather disingenuous headline “48 Hours Until the Start of Transfer of Power to the People” (because Elections Are the Answer) and declared on Page 1 that the health ministry had found the first two Tahrir casualties to have died from “homemade firearms” (i.e., thugs killing each other, not the army or police).

And now? Even refreshing Twitter and all the newspaper sites every second (my husband and kids would like Mommy back – sorry dears!), it’s impossible to keep up with the news. Protesters in Tahrir have declared an alternative government headed by El Baradei and two other respected presidential candidates. The Salafi Nour party apparently refuses to accept this government. Other revolutionary parties do too. But most groups (including a splinter group of young Muslim Brothers, very promising) also seem to be refusing to accept Ganzouri.  Will these groups boycott elections (this would be unwise and is unlikely)? Or, more interestingly, try to get them postponed?  Or (one rumor I’ve heard) personally man the polling stations to assure voters’ safety?  This morning the activists sat in outside the Cabinet building to prevent Ganzouri from taking his seat; Central Security Forces ran over one protester with a military vehicle; he died of a broken pelvis.  Another martyr’s mother led a march and sang a highly resonant song about (check out the layers of self-reference) a martyred protester who tells his own mother not to be upset, because he gave his life for Egypt…

The protesters pick up their rocks, the mothers embrace their roles.  The martyrology comes around full circle and eats its own tail. The art to commemorate the revolution feeds smoothly into feeding its next wave.  How many waves will it take, people?

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