February 21, 2011

Egypt Trip Report: Part III

The third part of my trip report to Egypt concerns a few of the worries I expressed in the first part of my trip report. Specifically, I worry about how the Egyptian Military will handle what seems like inevitable labor unrest.

As I argued earlier, the incentives are in place for every Tom, Dick and Harry in Egypt with a grievance to now protest to see how they might improve their lot in life before the new government is formed. All of Egypt has seen -- and continues to see, on al-Jazeera each day -- the effect of "people power." People all over the Arabic-speaking world, and especially in Egypt, are changing even that which seemed set in stone only weeks ago. So if the government has not been paying you all the bonuses they promised, or ifnit owes you back pay, or if it will not recognize your union, why on Earth would you not strike while the iron is hot and try to get something from this transitional military government?

If you're the military, meanwhile, you've already begun to lose your patience with all of these demonstrations and have no way to really address grievances in the first place. Besides, a Friday afternoon demonstration is one thing, but when people start clogging up the streets of Cairo, Mahalla and Alexandria with strikes in the middle of what is supposed to be a workweek, that gets frustrating quick.

The tragic thing is, this dynamic has played out before in Egyptian history. In 1952, after the Free Officers revolted and took charge, labor unrest at Kafr al-Dawar led to fighting between the Army and laborers. (See Vatikiotis, The Egyptian Army in Politics, Indiana University Press: 1961.) The Revolutionary Command Council actually executed two labor leaders. The new military government was poorly prepared to deal with grievances and lost patience, resulting in violence that would have been quite the scene on al-Jazeera had it taken place sixty years later.

This evening, I was traveling by taxi to a hotel to see a friend from Lebanon in town to cover the events here in Egypt. Driving through Midan Tahrir, traffic ground to a halt, and the Military Police -- not the regular traffic police -- was directing traffic. A tall, young, clean-cut Egyptian soldier stepped out into traffic to push the cab in which I was riding back a little bit so pedestrians could more easily cross the street. My equally young taxi driver started protesting and then, whether because his foot slipped off the clutch or due to malice, he bumped into the soldier with his taxi. "Oh, crap," I thought. "I'm about to watch this soldier drag my driver out of the taxi and beat him senseless."

But instead, the soldier just yelled at my taxi driver -- "What are you, crazy? You hit me!" -- and my driver yelled right back that he was trying to back up but that it was stupid what he was telling him to do anyway.

The look on that young Egyptian soldier said a lot, and using my telepathic ability to translate Arabic thoughts into English, I could see he was thinking something along the lines of "FML." There was no place that young soldier wanted to be less than on traffic duty, in the middle of Cairo, arguing with taxi drivers -- much less getting hit by them!

The Egyptian Military does not want to be in the situation in which it finds itself. It thinks it has bought itself six months with which it can get things in order for a transition to a new government. But the demands of the people are outpacing the ability or willingness of the military to respond to those demands. And while the military has made good decisions thus far, it's losing patience. Kids are still getting their pictures taken on tanks in Cairo, sure, and the people and the army are still "one," but I worry what happens when some young Egyptian soldier tires of getting yelled at by taxi drivers, or a unit trying to calm rioting workers fires a few warning shots and ...

All the more reason to get the police back onto the streets, form a coherent transitional government, and to stop reacting to the demands of the people and instead chart a course toward the new government that assures people their grievances will be met -- not now, perhaps, but in the future and soon.