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'If it comes to further clashes it will only embitter the protesters more'

Continued efforts by security forces to clear Tahrir Square will only result in more deaths and embitterment among the protestors, says international relations expert Klaus Larres who is witnessing the events in Cairo.

Rally in Cairo's Tahrir square, Egypt

Thousands of Egyptians are taking to the streets again

Klaus Larres is a Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He is currently in Cairo and has witnessed the events on Tahrir Square.

Deutsche Welle: For the third day in a row protesters have been clashing with security forces in Cairo's Tahrir square. You have been to Tahrir square the past days, what is the situation and the mood there?

Klaus Larres: The mood is very good. The protestors, mostly young people, are full of spirit and engagement. They are very driven and enthusiastic, but they are also at the same time very frustrated and very bitter and that is the main reason why they are protesting. Because essentially they believe nothing has changed since the toppling of Mubarak in early February. They believe that the Supreme Military Council which represents the army wants to stay in power forever and has no real intention to pass on governmental power to a genuine democratic and civilian government and that embitters an awful lot of them.

The police actually tried to clear the square by moving in very very forcefully on Sunday afternoon, but they could not or didn't wish to hold the square and perhaps even induce more deaths and after half an hour they retreated again. Ever since then the Square has been firmly in the hands of the protestors. But the protestors are not well-armed at all, they only have stones and they are also essentially peaceful. They don't want clashes with the police. And the police probably think it is good idea to clear the Square as a symbol of power, to display who really runs the country. In my view that is very unfortunate. If it comes to further clashes it will only embitter and frustrate the protestors even more. It can only lead to further escalation.

And theat is another question we can't answer how much is the country actually behind the protestors. When you go to Tahrir Square you believe the whole country is assembled there. There are several ten thousand, especially young people there. But if you move just half a mile away there is hardly anything going on. It's just like a normal day with people pursuing their business. So the protests in Cairo are really just in and around Tahrir Square. So one wonders what does the country actually think about the new protest movement. Is it behind it or isn't it?

What are they demanding from the Supreme Military Council?

If the Supreme Council stepped down immediately that would be the perfect solution for them. But they are realistic and say that at least the Supreme Council should commit itself to a fast, democratic handover. And they accuse the military government of not being prepared to do that. There will be elections on the 28th of November and the Military Council has said that it will stick to having these elections, but they will drag on for months and they are only to elect a constitutional assembly.

That assembly will draw up a constitution and eventually presidential elections will be held by late 2012 or perhaps even in early 2013. And throughout that time the military will remain in power and that of course means there is no genuine transition to a democratic government in the near future. And all the protestors assume that even once a new president has been elected the military really still wants to control that president. It is most likely, at least that's the situation at the moment, that that president would come from the ranks of the military or at least would be so in awe of the military that he would be essentially subservient to the military. And that means that the military would continue to run the country even if there were in fact a real civilian government.

What does the renewed violence mean for next week's elections?

We don't know. At first there was the suspicion that it would be a pretext for actually cancelling the elections. Apparently that will not be the case. And actually the elections were quite unclear even before the violence and the new protests erupted. The Muslim Brotherhood probably will get a substantial amount of the vote. Then the more extreme Muslim parties may attract some of the vote. Then there are more middle-of-the road and bourgeois parties and smaller left-wing parties, so we really don't know. It is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood would get a majority of the vote. They could get one-third or a bit more, but I don't think there's a danger from a Western point of view that the Brotherhood would win the election.

The EU's foreign policy chief said in a statement that she was deeply concerned and urged Egyptian authorities to end the violence while the US so far has not commented publicly even though the US has arguably the closest relations with the Supreme Military Council. What kind of reaction do you anticipate from Washington?

If the violent clashes continue I think all Western governments will have no choice but to condemn the violence and also eventually perhaps come down on the side of the protestors if the protestors are supported by a large majority in the country. But of course the West is in a very difficult situation. They have to balance their position and their interests in the area.

What the West really wants - both the US and the EU and really almost everyone - is a stable Egypt. It is strategically a very important country. It has still the best relations with Israel in that area and if Egypt blows up or a government comes to power that is unpredictable and less reliable than the military government from a Western point of view then that does not serve Western interests.

Of course the West, particularly the United States, also stands for democracy, human rights, but they also find it very hard not to support the military government and some sort of stability that his government maby be able to bring about. That balancing act already in some sense backfired in January and February when the US came down on the side of the protestors only rather belatedly and for a week or so gave lukewarm support to Mubarak, but didn't condemn him outright.

We can see this balancing act again. I think from a purely Western stability perspective one can understand it. But I wonder whether it is the best philosophy because in Egypt the military is probably not a stabilizing factor in the long run in the Middle East. One has to keep in the mind that the military has been in power essentially since the revolution of 1952 which brought Nasser to power. And probably the biggest fear of the military is that a new revolution could actually mean that they would have to give up power generally and that they would be overseen by a democratic, civilian government.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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