Middle East

Egypt's Battle for Freedom

A wounded protester is rushed to a field hospital near Tahrir Square during clashes with Egyptian riot police in Cairo on Nov. 20.

The ongoing violent clashes between Egypt's security forces and thousands of protesters in the iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo represent a second wave in a decisive struggle for freedom by the Egyptian people. The first part of this struggle led to the removal of the autocratic Mubarak government. In the last week, more than 40 protesters have died and hundreds have been wounded in the protest against the military government of Egypt.

Protests have broken out in other cities as well. The titular interim prime minister and the civilian cabinet resigned as protests intensified. Military leaders appointed a former prime minister in the Mubarak government as the new prime minister. Protesters promptly rejected the new appointment and are now calling for the military leaders to step down for a civilian presidential council that will manage affairs until a national election in 2012.

Up to 100,000 protesters crowded into Tahrir Square over the weekend, reenacting the heady days that led to the toppling of the Mubarak government. This tense situation was expected to jeopardize the parliamentary elections that started on Monday, but after two days, elections have been carried out safely and drawn a massive turnout.

Nine months ago, the Egyptian military emerged as heroes of the uprising by their apparent unwillingness to kill Egyptians engaged in peaceful protests. Protesters welcomed the decisive intervention of the military in easing out the Mubarak government. However, by reneging on their promise to hand over power to an elected civilian government within six months, the military unwittingly set the stage for the current standoff, inadvertently accelerating the process of a final decisive battle for freedom in Egypt.

For the past nearly 60 years, the powerful, urbane and sophisticated Egyptian military held sway in the country. Every leader of Egypt during this period had come from the military. Every major business figure in Egypt became successful because of strong connections to the military. Every prominent public servant owed his or her rise to the top to the military. Every prominent political figure in Egypt known before the 2011 Arab Spring rode the back of military patronage. Today, the Egyptian military is without question the strongest political and economic force in the country.

For all practical purposes, the ouster of Mubarak, while extraordinary, did nothing to change the dynamics of political and economic life in Egypt. The military superstructure remains intact in Egypt. The generals that jealously guard the pedestal position of the military in Egypt will not give up this position without a fight. It is no secret that the Egyptian military regards itself as the final arbiter in the country's future. This posture, sooner rather than later, was bound to lead to an inevitable clash with the organizers of the Arab Spring in Egypt who favor a democratic, prosperous Egypt with all its institutions subordinate to civil authority.

A very legitimate question is why it took so long before the inevitable showdown between democracy activists that ousted the Mubarak government and the current military leaders in Egypt. The uneasy truce between these two groups lasted for nine months as a result of three major reasons.

The first reason was the implicit trust that ordinary Egyptians had reserved for the military for more than two generations. During the 30-year autocracy of Mubarak, the military managed to convince ordinary Egyptians that, while a member of their fraternity was the head of state, they remained poised to defend the common person from undue excesses of the government in power. The police and internal security agencies, not the three arms of the military, were blamed for violent excesses of the government in power. This bond grew tighter after the nifty military maneuvers that ousted a hated regime nine months ago. The affinity also grew as long as the military appeared uninterested in the future politics of Egypt and when it organized the March referendum on political transition.

However, this implicit trust between ordinary Egyptians and its military has been tested in the last two months. As the military government made preemptive moves to shield the military from civil authority and immune the institution from constitutional checks and balances in a subsequent national civilian government, the bubble began to burst. The military's convoluted political transition timetable, especially in regards to the exact timeline for the inauguration of a civilian government, did not calm nerves.

An Arab public-opinion poll released a few days ago indicated that 43 percent of Egyptians believe that the military government is either slowing down or actively working against political reforms. Another report released by the Amnesty International pointedly accused the military government of human rights abuses to a degree even with or even worse than the record of the Mubarak government.

More than 12,000 civilians have passed through military courts in the last nine months and thousands have been jailed as part of a wider crackdown on dissent. The military government, rather than repeal the notorious Mubarak-era emergency laws that drastically curtailed human rights, expanded legal issues covered by the law. The heavy-handed response to a small group of peaceful protesters one week ago in Tahrir square may have finally severed the bond between the long-suffering people of Egypt and its iconic military.

The second reason is the mutual concern by democracy activists and the Egyptian military over the prospects of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated civilian government. As the most organized non-military political force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood stands to benefit maximally from a speedier transition to civilian rule. As the preeminent civil-society organization that continues to provide critically needed social services to desperately poor Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood has a huge reservoir of goodwill and support across Egypt. Freedom of religion and association were two important tenets of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and lingering concerns remain about the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood in this regard.

The third reason for the hitherto truce between democracy activists and the powerful military in Egypt was the tactically, unwise hibernation of pro-democracy grassroots activists from efforts to reshape the country's future. The relatively young men and women that willed Egypt to shed a brutal government in the spring decided to cocoon during the summer when important decisions about the future of the country were being made. These young men and women ceded the political space to media-savvy veteran politicians and the new military leaders. For the past five months, top generals in Egypt had been dialoguing with their friends in civilian clothes. It was not surprising that the Egyptian military felt emboldened to demand sacrosanct status in an emerging civilian government being programmed to be dominated by civilian cronies.

The current struggle playing out in Tahrir Square will determine whether Egyptians will have real political, economic and religious freedom. The ongoing violent struggle will also determine whether a new Egypt will emerge anchored on solid democratic principles, social egalitarianism and deep commitment to the rule of law. In addition, whether a new Egypt will emerge where no person or institution is above the law will be determined by the outcome of the ongoing impasse.

One of the most important issues that will be settled in the current struggle is whether young men and women of Egypt are ready to chart a new course for one of the oldest civilizations in history. In the land of the brave and the wise, is the younger generation that dared to dream of a democratic Egypt willing to step forward and lead a transformation?

In Tahrir Square, Egyptians will continue to fight for their own destiny. However, the United States provides more than $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt. In addition, the Arab League, the African Union and the European Union are important key parts of the endgame in this titanic struggle for freedom.

With any hope, as a result of this second, decisive revolt, the people of Egypt may have left autocracy in the dustbin of history. It is now very unlikely that Egyptians will ever support an autocratic government, military or civilian.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Chinua Akukwe.