News / Middle East

Egypt's Old Guard Faces New Generation

Anti-government protesters continue to celebrate in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, February 12, 2011
Anti-government protesters continue to celebrate in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, February 12, 2011

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Nico Colombant

As the post-Hosni Mubarak phase begins in Egypt, analysts say the military, which is now in power, is facing off against young Egyptians who have made clear they aspire to democracy.

Egypt's military leader, the Soviet-trained defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi drove on Saturday morning to Tahrir Square, the center of the protests seeking a transition to democratic, civilian rule.  He did not get out of his car.

Paul Beran, a Middle East expert from Harvard University, says so far, given the change in power, Tantawi is being well accepted, but that he will have to manage the situation very carefully.

Beran says Egypt's generational shift is also taking place within the military itself, one of many challenges facing Tantawi.

"[Tantawi] seems to have the goodwill of the vast majority of Egyptians and indeed those include the military, and so we can assume that, I do not think he has been plotting for this day, but I am sure he has been thinking about it for a number of weeks and wondering how the next steps happen," he said.

So far, the military council now ruling Egypt has issued repeated statements urging cooperation while promising a peaceful transition to an elected civilian democratic state.

A group called the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution held a news conference saying protesters should leave Tahrir Square and return next Friday to honor those who died during the protests.

Others said they needed to continue demonstrating until Egypt's 30-year emergency law which allows detention without charges is lifted.

Robert Danin, from the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, says this demand puts the military in a difficult position.

"Ironically, the emergency law looks a little more relevant today than it did a few days ago, a few weeks ago, because of what is happening on the streets but clearly this is one of the most hated elements of the old regime and so to be smart they are going to have to lift it," said Danin.

Ed Husain, a U.S.-based expert on Islamic fundamentalism, says that in terms of current political dynamics, it is important to note that Islamic extremists who tried to topple Mr. Mubarak, repeatedly failed, and that the current movement was youth-driven and non-violent.

"The Jihadis who wanted to overthrow him, they tried again and again using any tactic possible, but they failed to overthrow him," noted Husain.  "As [U.S.] President Barack Obama rightly identified, what we saw this time around was people with the Gandhi, Martin Luther King model winning in the Arab world, inconceivable three weeks ago, but here we are illustrating the facts that Arabs, like the rest of us in the world want freedom, human rights and democracy."

Later this year, Egyptians are hoping for free and fair elections, but Danin says it is difficult to predict at this point the early electoral frontrunners.

He mentions Omar Suleiman, who was named as vice president during the protests and the current head of the Arab League Egyptian Amr Moussa, as being part of the so-called old guard.

"I tend to think that people that we know well are likely to be the ones who will ultimately be bypassed," noted Danin.  "General Tantawi, Omar Suleiman, even to a certain extent Amr Moussa I think, are going to be just too closely associated with the old guard and to the extent that they are singing a new tune perhaps seen as carpetbaggers."

Well-known opposition figures include Ayman Nour, the head of the liberal El-Ghad party, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN nuclear watchdog often quoted in foreign media, and Mohamed Badi, the new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the protest organizers, the Google Internet search engine regional manager Wael Ghonim, 30, has insisted he is not a leader, and that he is not interested in entering politics.

But analysts say they believe a new class of younger political leaders could emerge very quickly, using social media tools, as they did in planning the protests, to further advance their causes and even win future elections.

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