Feature

Chaos in Cairo

Riot police blasted protesters demanding the end of military rule with tear gas, birdshot, rubber bullets, and, according to field medics, live ammunition.

Hundreds of thousands of angry demonstrators took to Cairo’s streets this week to demand that Egypt’s military rulers immediately hand over power to a civilian government. In Tahrir Square, riot police blasted protesters with tear gas, birdshot, rubber bullets, and, according to field medics, live ammunition. At least 38 people were killed, and 2,000 wounded. In an attempt to placate protesters, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi—Egypt’s de facto leader since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February—​announced that presidential elections would be held next summer, a year ahead of schedule, and that parliamentary elections would go ahead as planned next week. The crowd in Tahrir Square rejected Tantawi’s concessions, chanting, “Go, go, the people demand the overthrow of the regime!”

Egypt’s junta has outstayed its welcome, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. In the nine months since they helped protesters topple Mubarak, military leaders have shown no willingness to relinquish power. “Dates and rules for elections keep changing,” and the generals have tried to shape the new constitution so that it will place them beyond civilian control. The Obama administration should now use its considerable influence—it hands Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid—to force the generals to step down.

But we shouldn’t weaken the military too much, said Jonathan Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins the upcoming elections, as expected, it will use any power it gains “to ensure democracy and individual rights are doomed.” The Egyptian military might be corrupt, but it has to remain strong enough to keep the Islamists in line.

True, “there are ample reasons to worry about an Islamist victory at the polls,” said Shadi Hamid in TheAtlantic.com. They are not liberals. But letting the army retain control over the democratic process would be even more dangerous; just look at Algeria. When the military there annulled a 1992 election after Islamists won, years of civil war followed. Bloodshed on that scale is unlikely in Egypt. But any attempt by the military to exploit the current chaos in a bid to keep power would be “disastrous for Egypt’s fledgling transition.”

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