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In Egypt, Split Seen Between Protesters, Organized Political Groups

November 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Violent clashes between protesters and security forces continued Tuesday in central Cairo, but the country's military rulers appeared to give ground on political reforms. Jeffrey Brown discusses what's next for Egypt's "unfinished revolution" with Mervat Hatem of Howard University.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now is Mervat Hatem, an Egyptian-born political science professor at Howard University who studies the politics and history of the Middle East.

Welcome to you.

MERVAT HATEM, Howard University: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s try to fill in the picture a bit. How much is clear at this point about what the military rulers have agreed to?

MERVAT HATEM: There are four things that they agreed to, and it came at the end of his 10-minute — Field Marshal Tantawi’s speech.

First, he’s going to accept the resignation of the cabinet. And it’s going to be a caretaker government. Secondly, the parliamentary elections are to take place on time. In other words, they’re not going to change.

JEFFREY BROWN: As of Monday.

MERVAT HATEM: As of Monday, which sounds — it sounds very unrealistic, but more importantly it means that the protesters at Tahrir are going to have to go home before Monday.

And I think that this is a complicated issue, because that means that they want the protesters to go home, if they want the elections to take place. And obviously protesters want to see movement before they go home. In fact, many of the activists say that the mistake that they made in February was to go home and not to see the changes through.

Now, the third thing that the military promised is that they’re going to fast-forward the presidential elections to June of next year, 2012. The original calendar that they came up with had the presidential elections taking place in January 2013.

And then they said that they were willing to transfer power, in other words, leave, go back to the barracks, if they are able to gauge public sentiment through a referendum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. He offered a public referendum. Now, what do you make of that?

MERVAT HATEM: I think it’s not — I mean, a public referendum means again the protesters have to go home. And then it’s not going to take place overnight. And therefore it gives them — it gives them certainly more time to stay.

So, in other words, the public demand is that they leave immediately, but he’s trying to go around that by saying, let’s have a referendum to gauge what the public really wants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when we say the public and the public demand, try to fill that picture a little bit today, because the largest political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, apparently decided not to join the protests today, although also it was reported that many of their members went.

MERVAT HATEM: The young members of…

JEFFREY BROWN: What is going on?

MERVAT HATEM: OK. You have to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, who are also part of the religious trend in Egypt, are the ones who started the demonstrations on Friday.

But they went home at the end of the day. And then young people who basically camped in the square were then attacked by the police. And it is at that point that many young protesters filled the square to try and defend them. Clearly, there is a split at this point between the organized political groups, who basically want the elections to take place on the specific date, and the protesters in the squares, not just Tahrir Square.

There’s obviously — there have been large protests in Alexandria, in Suez, in Aswan, which is at the southern part of the country. So it’s spreading. Now, the people in the square, who are they? They’re clearly not representatives of these political groups, whether they are the Muslim Brotherhood or the other liberal groups.

They are largely young, and they are not particularly affiliated with existing political parties. And they have a different take on what it is that they would like to see. They would like an immediate transfer of power from the military, from SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to a civilian government, a national unity government, or — they call it a national salvation government.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does it look as though the military rulers are trying to divide the opposition with today’s agreement?

MERVAT HATEM: They are, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

MERVAT HATEM: Yes, they are.

They basically want the protesters to go home. And once the protesters go home, then the kind of pressure that has almost always during the last nine months have forced the military to make concessions will be gone, and, therefore, they can begin to maneuver or to sort of find their way around the representatives of the political opposition, whether they are the Muslim Brotherhood or the other liberal parties.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where are the liberal parties in this, the secular, more — Mohamed ElBaradei and others? Are they — what stance are they taking at this point?

MERVAT HATEM: Well, at this point, they have a list of demands. Actually, the representatives of 25 parties, mostly the liberal and secular parties, met yesterday and had a list of demands.

And the list of demands obviously include stopping the violence against them and their demonstrators immediately, releasing all the people who were arrested by the military courts from — during the last nine months. And the figures are astounding. From 12,000 — this is the low figure — to 20,000 people have been tried in military courts and have been put in prison.

They also want a new basically civilian council, a unity — a unity government. But, interestingly enough, they also want to stick to the dates of the upcoming election.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me just ask you briefly, because watching that report, it sure didn’t look like the people in the square were ready to accept what they heard on television tonight from the field marshal.

MERVAT HATEM: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: So do you expect more — more demonstrations?

MERVAT HATEM: I think — yes, I do, because at least as far as the young people are concerned — and one group that has been very active is the April 6 Movement. And some of their representatives were here in Washington.

And one of the things that they kept repeating is that the mistake that they made in February was leaving the squares and going home before seeing through the kinds of changes. And so it’s not likely that the young people in these different squares all over the country are going to make that same mistake again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mervat Hatem, thank you both — thank you very much.

MERVAT HATEM: You’re welcome.