A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Tahrir Protests: The Jacobin Temptation?

It is difficult at this distance, even with all the social media today, to assess the developments of the last few days in Cairo. The crackdown Friday night on those camped out in Tahrir Square seems to have exacerbated tensions between the Armed Forces Council and the demonstrators, but it also seems to have divided supporters of the revolution. While many might prefer a civilian Presidential council during the interim period (one of the demands of the current protest), others recognize that the Army is going to be calling the shots anyway and a smooth transition may require their presence. I've seen a number of reformers and young revolutionaries worried that too radical an agenda will alienate the average Egyptian, which will only help the already well-organized Muslim Brotherhood and the old guard of the National Democratic Party (which will likely run some sort of list even if the party itself is banned). There seems to be some concern that if the revolutionary protests take a radical turn, yield to a temptation to Jacobinism, it will alienate voters. It is also threatening the economy. The peacefulness of the protests had much to do with their success. The more radical protesters in Tahrir now are said to have booed some of the Youth Council who organized the revolution.

There are enough signs of backlash to be cause for concern: a blogger who criticized the Army has been sentenced to three years in prison by a military tribunal; tight new security restrictions have been announced at the University of Cairo, and the crackdown showed that the Army has its red lines.

It doesn't help that the Army itself has tried to insist that someone else, perhaps the NDP, was firing live ammunition Friday, insisting it was not, despite testimony to the contrary. This sort of disingenuousness has been seen before: first a crackdown, then a denial that it was the Army's doing.

There is plenty of reason for the young revolutionaries to suspect the Army, but so far, the Army has shown every sign of deliberately moving towards free elections, but with every intent to keep order in the meantime. Radical demands make many people nervous, and could lose a lot of the popular support the youth have achieved to date.

And yielding to Jacobin temptations can lead to a Thermidorian Reaction.

I do wish the Army was more open about what happened and did not seem to be asserting things easily disproved by YouTube videos. They refused to allow live broadcast of their last press conference. And, though some demonstrators are now calling for Field Marshal Tantawi to step down, the Field Marshal continues to make the Sphinx look talkative. Though he has posed for pictures with visiting foreign leaders (he is the protocol head of state), he hasn't delivered any public statements of any kind, preferring to let military spokesmen speak for the Council. I'm sure I'm not the only one who wonders who's really calling the shots. (Though Tantawi has never had the reputation of being a public speaker: charisma was not something Husni Mubarak welcomed in a Defense Minister.)

It's still a delicate time, and I hope that everyone (protesters and army both) pauses for reflection before demanding too much, lest what has already been won be in jeopardy.

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