Egyptians have risked, and continue to risk, so much for their future. Back in February, there was jubilation in Tahrir Square, at the ousting of President Mubarak after forty years of autocratic rule. There was hope for a more democratic future. Nine months on, they are back in Tahrir facing military and police brutality, asking why the ruling military council is denying the people that future.
These are the most sustained protests since Mubarak was ousted. Nearly 40 people have been killed. It is thought that many have been shot dead by the security forces. Many hundreds are injured. There are reports that the military is using a more powerful strain of tear gas that causes unconsciousness and convulsions. Reports on Twitter claim that CR gas is being used, a gas classified as a combat class chemical weapon.
Egypt has not been a happy place for many months. Life under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) is in many ways worse than under Mubarak. Since Scaf came into power, nearly 12,000 Egyptians have been thrown in front of military tribunals. 27 protesters, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed last month when the Army drove armoured vehicles into crowds. Bloggers and activists that the military has tried to silence are on hunger strike. There are appalling stories of prisoner abuse in Egyptian jails, with one prisoner tortured to death as punishment for smuggling in a SIM card.
It’s a hard balance for Western countries. Revolutions work best if they are indigenous. But there also needs to be clear and unequivocal international pressure. Egypt’s military has now spelt out now a clear timetable for Presidential elections to take place by next summer. But there is still much further to go. The military has not backed down on military tribunals, used to silence protesters. Its brutality in Tahrir and its heavy-handedness since taking power mean it has lost trust.
The most important thing that can happen now is for next week’s elections to go ahead. The protesters have forced important concessions from the military. Elections next week, drawing on Tunisia’s peaceful and effective parliamentary elections last month, will deliver a democratic reality that will make it even harder for the military to stick around.
The UK government was unequivocal on Libya. We need to be equally hard on Egypt – not to mention Syria. William Hague has said Britain should not take sides and that the military should oversee the promised elections. That now looks likely to happen. But we need to make sure that next week’s elections are not another false dawn. Once the people have voted, the votes need to translate into a democratic, civilian led government. The military cannot linger on.
The crowds in Tahrir have achieved a significant victory this week. The military has not answered all the questions – not by a long way. This is the chance to let the power of democracy speak, and for the dinosaurs from the military to go back to their barracks.