Worldview: Egypt's rebels concerned about lingering old guard

Posted: February 27, 2011

CAIRO - Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and former head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, is worried that Egypt's revolution will be hijacked by remnants of the old regime.

The sharp-tongued ElBaradei became a hero when he returned to his native Egypt a year ago to galvanize opposition to Hosni Mubarak. Young Egyptians promoted him on the Internet as a presidential challenger to Mubarak or his son Gamal. But he was vilified by the regime as a traitor and foreign agent and kept off the airwaves; he was virtually forced to leave.

He came back for the Jan. 25 revolution and is widely considered a top candidate for president. Yet, when I visited him at his comfortable villa just outside Cairo, he was totally frustrated. He complained that the military - which is now in charge - won't do what the country desperately needs.

"The head of the regime is gone, but most of the regime is still staying," he told me. "My worry is if all the young people feel this thing is being derailed they know a way back to the street, but it will be ugly."

Indeed, when I visited Friday's huge demonstration at Tahrir Square, the mood, while still celebratory, was far less jubilant than last week. Demonstrators demanded that the army sack Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and other ministers close to Mubarak.

Then, in the early hours of Saturday, soldiers used batons and Tasers to clear the square - the first time the army used force against the protesters. The military council later apologized - on its Facebook page - but the tensions remain.

Americans have a big stake in the outcome of this revolution. Of all the upheavals in the Middle East, Egypt's has the best prospects of producing a democratic system. Libya remains a tribal society bereft of viable institutions. Yemen, too, is enmeshed in tribal conflicts, complicated by the presence of al-Qaeda. Even Tunisia, where the chain of revolts began, is struggling to regroup after the fall of its dictator, as its tourism-based economy tanks.

With its large middle class, its many talented professionals, and its huge force of Facebook techies, Egypt has a fighting chance to make postrevolutionary progress. Egypt's army, lionized by the public for refusing to fire on the rebels, had been seen as the bulwark that would oversee the transfer to new elections. A successful Egyptian transition - even one with big bumps - would help stabilize a region that looks set for a long period of unrest.

But suspicion is setting in among the rebels that the army wants to partially restore the old system. The Higher Military Council - which is the real power in the country - is headed by the elderly Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was very close to Mubarak. The council is insisting on holding both presidential and parliamentary elections within six months, even though most political activists here believe that would be a disaster.

"If you do elections in six months," says ElBaradei, "the only people who will benefit are the Muslim Brotherhood and the old government party, which is trying to reincarnate itself and still has its tentacles out." These two groups are the best organized; new political parties are just getting started. Such a parliament would fail to represent the silent majority - the 80 percent of Egyptians who don't vote and have never been involved in civic activity, but were galvanized in the past two months.

ElBaradei sees one of two explanations for the army's rush to elections: "Either the army feels it has a hot potato [running the country] and wants to get rid of it. Or they want a parliament and president who will act as a fa├žade for the continuation of the old regime."

It's hard to figure out what the Egyptian generals want because they rarely speak to the press or public. "The army is still a black box," ElBaradei says, and he's not exaggerating. Three generals appeared on a popular talk show last week - to insist that the weekly demos in Tahrir Square should stop and the public should trust them.

The military council has held one meeting with eight young leaders of the revolution. But one of these leaders told me: "The generals stopped taking notes when we started talking about delaying elections for one year." Another meeting is in the works, but the young rebels fear that they are being patronized.

It's inspiring to talk with these young men (and they are mostly men) who are struggling to form new liberal and social democratic parties. Their talk of mobilizing the massive youth bulge to vote and of raising campaign funds on Facebook is talk I've never heard in the Mideast.

The army could allay their fears by firing Shafiq, or easing the obstacles to forming political parties, or getting rid of the Neanderthals who run state TV (and still refuse to interview ElBaradei). It could replace the military council with a more open presidency council that included civilians. Most important, it could delay elections until new parties can organize.

As ElBaradei rightly says, the country needs "a government that represents the people who went to the street."

And as he warns, "The old regime still hasn't gone away."


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com, or read more on her blog, www.philly.com/worldview.

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