Egypt: the second time around?

Can the army and the politicians stop a second revolution in Egypt? The images from Tahrir square suggest we are back to February, except this time the protestors’ demand is to get rid of the ruling military council which, despite having the run the country with shocking incompetence this year, has been negotiating a role for itself after it hands over power to civilians.

Shaken by the renewed outburst of rage on the streets of Cairo, the council today held a five-hour meeting with political parties and some of the main presidential candidates and agreed to hand over power to an elected president by the middle of 2012, a year ahead of its latest schedule. That was its main concession – and it is an important one if the generals stick to it. The council also accepted the resignation of Essam Sharaf, prime minister, and his hapless government.

According to politicians briefed on the meeting, the new government will not be one of national unity or “salvation” as some of the reports suggest. It will be made up of technocrats, much like the current one. Will the moves be enough to send enraged young Egyptians back home? Not according to the reaction in Tahrir square tonight. Many of the protestors, after all, are not listening to the politicians; they are fed up with a political elite they accuse of stealing the revolution. A year is a long time from now and a technocratic government will not make much of a difference to the youths’ main demand, the fall of Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

The deal struck today, however, appears to be satisfactory to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist opposition that is expected to become the largest bloc in parliament after elections due to start on Monday. The Brotherhood is desperate for the elections to go ahead and Essam el-Erian, the deputy leader of the organisation’s new political party, Freedom and Justice, says another technocratic government will do for now. It is the elections, he says, that must produce Egypt’s first political government.

Some people will not leave the square, concedes Mr el-Erian, but he also insists that if you look beyond downtown Cairo, much of the rest of Egypt is calm and will find the concessions acceptable. The Brotherhood, in fact, seems to be in agreement with the military on this point. In a challenge to Tahrir square, Field Marshall Tantawi declared on Tuesday evening that if the protestors insist on the immediate handover of power then a referendum will be held on the matter.