CAIRO: Violent unrest by young Egyptians seeking a quick end to army rule could lead to a presidential election being held before mid-2012, as now planned, but even then the military is still expected to wield powerful influence over the nation.
Feeling angry and disenfranchised, secularist and largely unorganized protesters have skirmished for a week in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square with soldiers who have beaten men and women to the ground and fired shots to disperse crowds.
The flare-up, an escalation of clashes going on since mid-November, has brought to the fore a dissident hard core keen to fight security forces even though the wider public has tired of destabilizing, economically damaging unrest and prefer a focus on the process of democratic institution-building.
Largely limited to Tahrir, the disturbances are unlikely to prevent the scheduled completion of a staggered parliamentary election early next month, the first since a popular revolt overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February.
But the army’s use of deadly force against recent protesters has appalled many Egyptians for whom the military hitherto was the country’s sole institution above reproach, especially after it declined to stamp out the unrest that drove out Mubarak.
Many Egyptians including politicians are now calling for the ruling military council to hold presidential elections – now set for June 2012 – soon after parliament convenes later in January.
"When we swept Tahrir clean in February we erased the blood of the martyrs and buried the revolution when it was born. Our demands have not been met … Violence is the only way to put the revolution back on track," said protester Mustafa Ayman.
Yet an earlier presidential election would not necessarily eliminate the military’s predominance in a new civilian-governed state, the goal of protesters, because all the viable candidates will have to have good relations with the generals.
"Political forces and Egyptians angered by the mayhem have called for early presidential elections but that will not neutralize the army," said political analyst Mohamed Soufar.
"At this stage, and in a country run by an unannounced military dictatorship, any president will need the backing of the army to manage the affairs of the state," Soufar said.
A source close to the army told Reuters a popular mandate would not be enough to support Egypt’s next president because it would also need the backing of the military elite. "This is a transitional period where one party hands power to another. A deal must be struck. This is politics," the source said.
This would also mean the army maintaining its economic privileges with enough autonomy to run its business empire.
The military’s importance to the economy and more broadly Egyptian stability is underscored by activities such as its road-building and recent loan to the central bank of $1 billion to ease a shortage of foreign reserves.
In 2008, the army alleviated a national bread crisis by having conscripts step up production in army bakeries.
"We want to reclaim the republic from army rule. But first the army will need certain guarantees to cede power, such as safeguarding its economic holdings and immunity from being held accountable," said Soufar.
Egypt has been run by strongmen from the military since 1952, when army officers staged a coup, ousting the king. It is also revered for its surprise war with Israel in 1973.
Should presidential elections be held earlier than expected only a few candidates may be able to mount a serious bid.
One of them is former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who opinion polls and analysts suggest has emerged as the front-runner for Mubarak’s old position. He has been a popular Egyptian foreign minister and is a well-known public face.
Moussa, 74, may be seen as a bridge between the old order and voters seeking stability in the new civilian state. Analysts say his ties to the military make him a favorite of the generals looking for security before formally quitting power.
Moussa backs calls to move up the presidential vote, saying Egypt is undergoing a crisis requiring a swift transfer of power to an elected head of state.
But Hassan Nafaa, a professor and anti-Mubarak activist, said holding a presidential election before parliament has passed a new constitution would risk endowing the new president with the same unlimited powers that Mubarak wielded.
"This would open the door to a tug of war between the new president, government and parliament who would fight over limiting powers he already has," Nafaa said.
Former United Nations diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei is another putative candidate respected among democracy campaigners and internationally but seen by ordinary Egyptians to be out of touch, having spent much of his career abroad. Polls have suggested he may not have a very broad base of support.
But his diplomatic pedigree, especially in dealings with the United States, makes ElBaradei a more independent candidate than Moussa or others who were prominent in the old regime.
"ElBaradei as president would be a real challenge to the army because he has good relations with the US and can actually marginalize the army’s diplomatic role," Soufar said.
In contrast with the peaceful protests that united Egyptians across the spectrum to eject Mubarak, the youth in Tahrir now use catapults and sharp projectiles to confront security forces, saying conflict with the authorities is necessary.
"There is no such thing as peaceful revolution with a transitional period led by the army, the institution in control of the country since 1952. Who are we kidding?" said Ayman, who preferred not to use his real name.
He is among many leftist-leaning young people who see more value in being a pressure group than entering politics.
"Two parties have ruined this revolution: the army and the Brotherhood," he said, adding it was clear the army and Islamists, who look set to dominate parliament, collaborate to reach a balance of power in the new civilian state.
In a statement entitled "Either us or you" which circulated during clashes last Tuesday, the youth called for a second revolution against the military council.
"You are our target, quite frankly," read the statement, demanding that army generals submit power to a transitional council. Known as the "Ultras of Tahrir," the youth warned against political groups colluding with the army.
"We oppose the former regime which remains in power. We oppose those who insult the revolution and its martyrs, and those who use religion to ride onto the revolution."
A general from the military council said the clashes were proof of "systematic violence" perpetrated by "invisible hands," a term for those who derail reform to maintain their interests.
But some have questioned whether the military council itself was an active agent in stirring violence or allowing it to persist as a means of splintering the pro-democracy movement to prevent mass protests of the scale that toppled Mubarak.
"The military council has a difficult balance of power to maintain. It utilizes bouts of controlled violence to divide the opposition. Yet it must not go too far or it risks uniting the opposition against it," said Soufar.
"It’s like a game of chess."
The army vehemently dismisses accusations that it wants to hang on to power or that it is acting insincerely. It insists it will stick to its plan to see through a democratic transition.
"The armed forces will press on with its role in transitional period," General Adel Emara told reporters this week in which he defended the army’s handling of the protests.
Egypt’s Islamists have held back from participating in the protests since they are expected to emerge as the largest bloc in parliament, a stance welcomed by the generals since it has helped confine protests to a relatively small minority.
But analysts say if Egyptians begin to see the army as an obstacle to stability rather than its guarantor, they may unite against it. The army stresses that it retains the overall confidence of the people.