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Blog: Cairo in Turmoil: the Egyptian Revolution Part Two

An injured Egyptian protester is helped away during clashes with security forces on the third day at Tahrir Square in Cairo on November 21, 2011.
Photo: Khaled Desouki | AFP | Getty Images
An injured Egyptian protester is helped away during clashes with security forces on the third day at Tahrir Square in Cairo on November 21, 2011.

For the second time within 11 months the eyes of the White House and the world are focused on Cairo.

Tahrir Square in the middle of this bustling and impoverished city of 20 million is full of young people chanting slogans of freedom and liberty.

The bangs of exploding tear gas canisters and the frequent rush of people carrying injured compatriots back to hastily arranged field hospitals are frightening.

Every so often protestors come running away from the frontline at the eastern side of the square to escape the vicious tear gas clouds, the plastic bullets and the charge of the well-armed police officers in their black uniforms. A particularly brutal charge, at 5pm on Sunday, led to more than 30 deaths and hundreds of injured. It appears that live ammunition was used. Still, after only 30 minutes the police were forced to retreat again from Tahrir Square. In response to the killings, the day after, on Monday, an even larger crowd descended on Tahrir Squareto show their defiance.

Who are the protestors and what do they want?

Among the protestors there are many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, an even more extreme Islamic party. But there are also Coptic Christians and a good number of liberal groups. The police violence of the last few days has united these diverse unarmed groups into a common movement which, however, is devoid of any real leadership and proper organization.

The young protestors are calling for the introduction of democracy and an elected civilian government. The square echoes with the chants demanding the ouster of Field Marshal Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Army, and the end of the rule of the military elite that in one way or another has been in charge of Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser's bloody 1952 coup. The revolution that began on January 25, 2011, and led to the downfall of long-standing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak just over two weeks later has entered its second and perhaps decisive stage.

After all, nothing much has changed in Egypt since Mubarak's ouster. His disciples are still in power, the Egyptian economy has further deteriorated, corruption is as bad as ever and Mubarak's torture chambers continue functioning well with more than 12,000 civilians having been put in front of military tribunals since February. The Mubarak-era 'emergency laws' have still not been repealed. The all powerful Egyptian military is resolved at all costs to avoid relinquishing power and becoming subservient to a democratic civilian government. The resignation of the interim cabinet on Monday has not changed this.

An Egyptian female protester covers her face with the national flag during clashes on the third day with security forces at Tahrir Square in Cairo on November 21, 2011
Photo: Khaled Desouki | AFP | Getty Images
An Egyptian female protester covers her face with the national flag during clashes on the third day with security forces at Tahrir Square in Cairo on November 21, 2011

What should Washington do?

Just as in January, the White House is confused and distracted. Stability in the volatile Middle East is what the White House desires and a cautious and long-drawn out transition to democracy guided by the Army seemed to be the best option to prevent any radical developments in Egypt. This scenario, however, is no longer realistic. The Obama administration, therefore, needs to adopt a clear position. Egypt is geo-politically too important a country for Washington to remain sitting on the fence. In February, during the first part of the revolution, Obama continued to reluctantly support Mubarak before belatedly calling for his resignation. This has not been forgotten in Egypt.

In Cairo almost everyone I spoke to is convinced that Obama is siding with the Egyptian military. Clearly, the White House ought to come out in support of the protestors who are putting their lives at risk by confronting the forces of autocracy and demand the immediate cessation of all police and army violence. In view of America's financial support of Egypt to the tune of three billion dollars a year (one quarter of Egypt's entire annual budget), Obama should demand the following:

First, the Supreme Council of the Army should be asked to hasten the transition to democracy and announce holding internationally supervised democratic election for a new President as soon as possible. In the meantime a new democratic constitution should be drawn up by the new constituent assembly to be chosen through the elections that are scheduled to begin on November 28.

Secondly, the military must be convinced that they must renounce their role in Egyptian politics. The new constitution ought to include a clause that makes the military subservient to a civilian government.

It appears that only a firm American stance and a strong leadership role by the White House can prevent the further descent into violence and chaos in Egypt. The revolution in Egypt can be Obama's moment. The President has been given a second chance to make history and come down clearly on the side of democracy and freedom. He should use this unique opportunity.

Klaus Larres is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC. He is distinguished professor in History and International affairs at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.