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Egypt's violence has repercussions

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After three days of increasingly violent demonstrations, Egypt's interim civilian government submitted its resignation to the country's ruling military council on Monday, bowing to the demands of the protesters and marking a crisis of legitimacy for the military-led government.

The move followed the most sustained and bloodiest challenge to the military's hold on power since the fall of Hosni Mubarak as demonstrators clashed with security forces around Tahrir Square and across the country. Egyptian troops had been heralded as saviours when their generals ushered out Mubarak on Feb. 11, but on Sunday they led a new push to clear the square. The health ministry said Monday at least 23 people had been killed. Since Saturday, more than 1,500 people had been wounded, the ministry said.

By Monday evening the crowd in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicentre of the Arab Spring uprisings, had swelled to a size even larger than the night before, easily exceeding 10,000 people.

When Hosni Mubarak quit as president, he left a void in the government of the largest and most populous Arab country. The army assured Mubarak's departure and paved the way for a relatively peaceful transition (compared to Yemen, Libya and Syria) and maintained a popular image as the nation's protector.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, however, resisted demands for an immediate transfer of power to a civilian transitional government. Instead, Tantawi dictated in a March 19 constitutional reform that power would be transferred to civilian democratic rule within six months. Now, more than eight months later, a three-phased election is to begin Nov. 25, followed by a constitutional assembly, which will approve a new constitution and pave the way for presidential elections.

Tantawi, meanwhile, published "guidelines" for the coming elections, including quotas for farmers and workers in parliament (the Majlis al-Shaab).

But what aroused the opposition and led to the new wave of violence was the statement "the army is the guardian of the constitution" and, as such, will not be subject to the parliamentary control of its budget and expenditures.

Many Egyptians fear this means the army has no intention of ceding power to civilian rule.

Since the overthrow of King Farouk in July 1952, the army has been a key component of the Egyptian regime. It owns enterprises for the manufacture of cement, military vehicles, washing machines and bottled water. It also controls large farms and swaths of reclaimed desert land, all of which it uses to fund patronage to the officer corps.

The new wave of violence has also raised again the question of the impact of the Egyptian events on its foreign policy and on its relations with Israel and the West.

Following talks last week, Yitzhak Levanon, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, returned to Cairo on Monday for the first time since demonstrators took over the Israeli Embassy and forced the evacuation of its staff.

Levanon, who is due to step down as ambassador, will use the visit to bid farewell to his Egyptian hosts. But the trip will also allow him to gather information for policy-makers in Israel eager to evaluate future Israeli-Egyptian relations.

It is no secret that since Mubarak's downfall the big powers have been intensely involved in evaluating Egypt's new foreign policy. Considering Egypt's regional importance, the U.S. and western countries are seeking to protect their national interests and are hoping for a transition to a Western-style democracy. The U.S. has accepted that Islamists will play a role in Egypt's public life.

On the other hand, Iran and Turkey want Egypt to become "Islamic" -- Iran pressing for a "very conservative" regime while Turkey is pressing for a "moderate conservative" regime.

Needless to say, the West prefers the Turkish model.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

-- with files from the New York Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2011 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.


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