Tahrir once again rose to prominence this past week when military and police troops became entrenched in violent conflict with the protesters- culminating in the savage stripping and beating of a female protester, whose photograph has sent waves around the globe. It is a sure reminder of while there have been cause for celebration with the inaugural elections widely considered free and legitimate, there are forces that are jeopardizing the gains made since February- foremost among these is the increasingly heavy-handed and autocratic stance of the military.
Since January the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under the leadership of Tantawi (Mubarak's former defense minister) has ruled the country as an interim government with the expressed intent of relinquishing power once elections are completed. The military has a wide amount of support within Egypt- a large part of this has to do with the mandatory service requirements within the country. This makes it a more representative body and humanizes them to a degree with the wide spread of military personnel across many social divides. Contrast this with the perception of the Central Security Forces of the Ministry of the Interior as thugs of the Mubarak era and the general animosity between them and the public- amplified because of atrocities committed during the January uprising against Mubarak-rule. The military on the other hand, was largely perceived as a peaceful force that sided with the people and pressured Mubarak to resign.
However, in subsequent months there has been growing disillusionment with military rule with major, large-scale protests in Tahrir reminiscent of January against military tribunals, detentions, martial law and motions to impede a return to civilian rule. It has been popular to ascribe these subsequent moves by the military as slowly turning into a coup rather than transition, but in reality this was all set in place when Mubarak resigned and handed authority over to the military council on February 11th. Such moves were to be expected and anything less was undue optimism.
Under such an environment the military has opted to try to isolate those protesting in Tahrir from the mainstream. The successes of the January Revolution had to do with the whole populace in active support and behind a common cause- the removal of Mubarak from the presidency. Since then, the grievances have been more varied and nuances, from the release of certain bloggers and human rights activists, to the election time-table and police abuses. The military, instead of addressing these concerns head on, have chosen a second route- forcing a choice for Egyptians between freedom and security. Large numbers of prisoners (including violent ones) were released following Mubarak's departure, and crime has drastically risen with stories of carjackings and murder aplenty. The state run media actively questions the loyalty of protesters and insinuates foreign involvement to weaken the country- pandering to xenophobia. When the protests do turn violent the police do play a large role in aggravating it, anecdotal statements are aplenty regarding undercover cops at the front-lines of Tahrir stoking the flames and inciting aggression within the protesters ranks.
What is surprising in my mind is the open involvement of the military in the direct suppression of those within Tahrir when the police should suffice. The 'blue-bra'd' woman is only the most prominent example of a trend of increasingly direct actions against the protesters in Tahrir by the military. It continues to try to play its dual role as a mediator between the police and protesters (in November they physically erected a barrier between them and placed themselves in between) but also siding with the police in committing atrocities against them. The military has lost a large amount of respect amongst some Egyptians for these actions, but not everyone. The only logical reason I can see for this involvement is that they are trying to leverage their prestige and widespread support to counter and further isolate Tahrir from the mainstream. And this has had some returns- near the end of the violent protests in November (the Largest since Mubarak's departure), a pro-SCAF rally was held elsewhere in Cairo and thousands showed up in support. This is not to say the SCAF is here to stay, as of yet it seems likely that the military will prefer to relinquish its rule rather than continue to expose itself to critique in such a manner. But how- and when- is likely to be done on its own terms.
Daniel Kryger Studied at American University for his BA. Daniel recently returned from living overseas in the Middle East.