The breakneck pace of developments in Egypt over the last few weeks would leave anyone reeling and confused about what Egyptians want. Do they support the latest protesters’ demands—ultimately backed by the United States and European Union—for a quick transition to civilian rule? Or are they sick of the protests and happy to put their trust in SCAF to guide the transition? Or are they indifferent so long as the Brotherhood has a path to power?
Seeing the massive turnout for elections, it’s clear that a substantial majority of Egyptian voters did want to exercise their right to freely elect their members of parliament—despite some protesters’ calls for a boycott—regardless of whatever else might be happening in the country.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the protesters were out of sync with the rest of the population on the matter of SCAF rule.
After the revolution in February, SCAF started out with a high degree of credibility and popular support, and at times the continuing protests have seemed lacking in energy. Gallup polling that ended in September suggested that many Egyptians were tiring of protests and wanted to focus on stability and economic concerns.
But those polls, for which SCAF censored a number of questions, were conducted before it took some of its most disturbing actions. Back in September the military had already been trying civilians and convicting them in military trials, and it had been cracking down on press freedom. But it hadn’t yet resorted to the sort of extreme violence it engaged in on October 9, when military vehicles drove through crowds of Coptic protesters in the Maspero area of Cairo, crushing and killing at least 10 protesters. Another dozen or so protesters and bystanders also died in the crackdown.
Nor had the SCAF yet been as overtly blatant as it later became in its efforts to protect its privileges and secure a position of control over a future civilian government. It was only in November that SCAF added to its proposal for “supraconstitutional” principles a set of provisions to shield its budget and operations from civilian oversight and to give the military the authority to pick 80 percent of the members of the constituent assembly charged with drafting the country’s constitution. And it was only recently that it became clear that the SCAF was trying to delay presidential elections until at least 2013.
Even before the latest wave of anti-protester violence, a different poll, the Zogby Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey, conducted at the end of October, found that “a plurality of Egyptians (43 percent) believe that the military rulers are working to slow or reverse the gains of the revolution, while only 21 percent believe that they are working to advance these gains, and 14 percent believe that the military authorities are indifferent.” In just the last two weeks, security forces operating under the command and control of the military once again directly engaged in killing of protesters, with more than 40 dead, apparently largely because of the use of live ammunition—a grossly excessive use of force that the military allowed to go on for days. So it would be no surprise if the percentage of people who view the SCAF as working against the revolution has gone up even since then.
Of course, there’s a lot that we don’t know about Egyptians’ attitudes toward the military government and its actions. Egyptians may well be tired of Tahrir, protests, and instability.
But Egyptians may also be tired of SCAF’s abuses, which themselves foster instability. For many, voting in the parliamentary elections may be just another way of asserting themselves in favor of democracy.
In a sense, the actions of the voters and protesters may both be reflections of the same fundamental aspiration: to have the ability to elect their own leaders, rather than be ruled by unaccountable ones, whether in uniform or out of it and have those leaders respect their rights. And the United States was right when it threw its support behind them.