Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi gave a televised speech late Nov. 22 to address the renewed protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in several other Egyptian cities. He delivered what was meant to appear as a series of concessions designed to reassure people that the ruling military council wants to hand over power to a civilian government as soon as possible, while reaffirming that the first phase of parliamentary elections will go on as scheduled on Nov. 28. However, Tantawi's pledges are actually aimed at manipulating an already fractured opposition. The SCAF wants to portray protesters as the real impediment to stability, while giving the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leadership a continued incentive to shun the protests and see the elections through.
Tantawi promised in the speech to fulfill several of the protesters' demands. He said he would accept the resignation of the current Cabinet, offered one day previous, and quickly replace it with an interim "National Salvation Government." He also promised to fast-track presidential elections, moving them from 2013 to an unspecified date before July 2012. Tantawi did not give in to protesters' core demand that the SCAF step down immediately, but he did offer to put the issue to a popular referendum — a display of good faith that will resonate with the millions of Egyptians who still trust the military's intentions. The SCAF may or may not follow through on these pledges — these rhetorical concessions, so close to the start of parliamentary elections, intend to portray the military regime as conciliatory and the protesters in Tahrir as unreasonable. The SCAF hopes that by doing so, it will avoid prodding a wider segment of the population to join the calls for immediate regime change.
The demonstrators in Tahrir lack widespread support among Egyptians, so the SCAF is currently still able to manage the challenge posed by the protests. The numbers in the square over the last week are as high as they have been since February but still fall short of the numbers seen at the peak of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. Still, another delay of parliamentary elections by the SCAF would be seen as a direct challenge to the country's most organized political group, the MB, which wants more than any other political group in the country for the polls to move forward as scheduled, as its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) will likely fare better than any other party.
The ideal scenario for the SCAF would be for the electoral process to drag on longer than what Tantawi promised Nov. 22, as it would allow the ruling council more time to generate splits within the opposition (or to watch them develop organically). But under the current conditions, with tens of thousands of people back in Tahrir due largely to the perceived delaying tactics by the SCAF, moving elections up was not a difficult concession for the military to make. Whether a new president is chosen in 2012 or 2013, all that really matters for the SCAF is that once the democratic transition is complete, the military can return to the barracks with a weak parliament, an executive branch under its control, and a constitution embedded with safeguards that will guarantee the maintenance of the military's economic and political interests. Besides, the SCAF can always go back on its promise a few months later if it deems such a move in its interest.
SCAF Treads Carefully with Cautious MB
Nevertheless, the military does seem to truly want a popular vote to take place. The SCAF does not want to remain in charge of Egypt's day-to-day governance in perpetuity. This brings the SCAF's interests partially in line with the MB's. The MB, by nature a cautious organization, sees even imperfect elections as its best short-term option toward achieving its long-term aim of maximizing the MB's influence in Egypt. The group has a history of being targeted by state crackdowns — a record that leaves the MB aware of the risks of attempting to weaken the military's grip by advocating an immediate revolution. The MB has thus been extremely careful in choosing when it will openly defy the military by participating in large-scale demonstrations, and it has picked its battles wisely. It has primarily targeted the issue of the supra-constitutional principles, but in expressing its opposition, the MB has eschewed the use of violence as a tactic.
A good example of the MB's overarching strategy was demonstrated Nov. 18. The MB, alongside other Islamist forces, actually organized that day's large demonstration in Tahrir, triggered by the government's refusal to abandon its attempts to influence the writing of the next constitution. Rather than choose to conduct a sit-in, the MB vacated the square that same evening. Its members were not around when, on the morning of Nov. 19, security forces violently dispersed the few hundred protesters who had camped out to protest a separate issue. Violence escalated from there and led to the situation that prompted Tantawi's speech. The MB's leadership, content to sit on the sidelines and criticize the violence employed by the regime, never called on its members to return to the streets — though it told its members they were free to attend as individuals. The MB's leadership did issue several statements urging the SCAF to accelerate the democratic transition, however, and warned of "another revolution" should elections be postponed.
This is one of the main reasons Tantawi reaffirmed Nov. 22 that the elections would go on as scheduled Nov. 28 — because the SCAF is not interested in finding out, right now, to what degree the MB is bluffing. Though the military does not want to see Islamists garner too many seats in the new parliament, it is willing to take that risk, because it assumes it will maintain a strong check over the legislative body. It is unlikely that the MB could tip the balance against the regime simply by calling on its members to join the crowds in Tahrir — but such a scenario would greatly complicate the SCAF's efforts to manage the unrest in the streets and keep the opposition off balance.
The SCAF's greatest asset is that the vast majority of Egyptians desire stability above all else. Though the idea of a democratic transition enjoys widespread support, there is not an overwhelming urge that this occur immediately — especially when there is not a clear idea of what would replace the SCAF. This desire for stability will help the military maintain the support of millions of Egyptians for some time to come, even though large demonstrations in Tahrir will become the norm in Egypt for the foreseeable future, no matter what the SCAF does.
The military can use violence, grant political concessions, hold elections, put members of the Mubarak regime on trial, reform the Interior Ministry, increase subsidies or employ any number of other methods to placate or put down protesters. Regardless, there will continue to be a core group of anti-military activists that will from time to time call on people to take to the square. The military's challenge is to ensure that this segment of the population does not grow too large. While part of that strategy involves keeping the MB convinced that the slow process of a democratic transition is the best way forward, the SCAF must also maintain its credibility as the greatest guarantor of stability among the majority of the population.