Egypt's tensions show strain in 'season of change'

By Sarah El Deeb

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Thursday, May 19, 2011 photo, Egyptians watch U.S President Barack Obama delivers a policy address at a coffee shop in Cairo Egypt. The simmering frustrations in Egypt _ more than four months after the stunning downfall of Hosni Mubarak _ offer a sobering counterpoint to the soaring encouragement for Arab aspirations in U.S. President Barack Obama's address Thursday to mark the region's "season of change."

Amr Nabil, Associated Press

CAIRO — The same message appears on the Facebook page of Egypt's armed forces every day: Trust us, we remain on the side of the Arab Spring.

Yet it's reaching out to an increasingly tough audience — the young and impatient legions who launched Egypt's historic uprising and are now wondering why it all seems stalled with elections still months away and military caretakers firmly in charge.

The simmering frustrations in Egypt — more than three months after the stunning downfall of Hosni Mubarak — offer a distinct counterpoint to the soaring encouragement for Arab aspirations in Barack Obama's address on Thursday to mark what the U.S. president called the region's "season of change."

"The events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won't work anymore," Obama said in Washington in a speech that included pledges of economic aid and initiatives for Egypt and Tunisia.

Although Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab revolts, Egypt's 18-day uprising is unquestionably the landmark event in the region's epic challenges to the political order.

But Egypt also highlights some of the huge obstacles facing the wider Arab goals of building new systems without the proper tools at hand: a lack of clear leadership or vision among the new political stake holders, deep-rooted ties to the old regime in nearly every aspect of life and few institutions capable of carrying the load on the way to democracy.

Hundreds of protesters in central Cairo called Friday for the resignation of the military officer who became Egypt's de facto leader after Mubarak.

"There is conflict between those who want to push for change and those who oppose it. That is why we have ambiguity and confusion," said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. "No revolution succeeded in toppling the old order in 24 hours. It takes time."

In various ways, Egypt carries lessons for the upheavals that followed across the region.

A tipping point against Mubarak was the military's refusal to defend the regime with widespread attacks against protests. Other regimes took note. When protests broke out in Syria and the Gulf state of Bahrain, security forces answered with smothering assaults, arrests and crackdowns.

The uprising in Bahrain appears to have collapsed under the pressures. The island kingdom imposed martial law-style rule in March and brought in a Saudi-led military force against the protests by the nation's majority Shiites, who claim of widespread discrimination by the ruling Sunni monarchy.

But Bahrain's leaders also have some breathing room as one of Washington's most critical military allies. It's home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the Pentagon's main force confronting Iran's military ambitions in the Gulf. U.S. officials have denounced violence in Bahrain, but stopped short of any direct punishments.

Obama described Bahrain as a "long-standing partner," but said its arrests and crackdowns on protesters "will not make legitimate calls for reform go away."

Syria, meanwhile, is coming under a growing international campaign to force President Bashar Assad to back down. On Wednesday, the U.S. imposed new sanctions targeting Assad and senior officials, and the Europe Union was pushing for similar measures to punish Syria after two months of crackdowns that have killed more than 850 people.

Assad's regime replied with defiance Thursday, saying the sanctions would never undermine Syria's "independent choices and steadfastness." At the same time, Syrian forces continued to shell the border town of Talkalakh, which is believed to be a smuggling hub through territory loyal to Assad.

Obama's retort to Assad: He can lead the transition for greater political rights "or get out of the way."

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