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Hosni Mubarak’s unhappy birthday

Hosni Mubarak’s unhappy birthday

CAIRO — There is a grim, inexorable cycle to clashes here: One group of activists gathers to decry some aspect of Egypt’s botched transition to democratic rule — in this latest case, the supporters of Salafist preacher Hazem Abou Ismail, who gathered outside the Ministry of Defense to protest the would-be candidate’s exclusion from the race. They are soon joined by revolutionaries of all stripes — the April 6 Youth Movement, for example, and soccer fans known as the Ultras — who bring their own grievances against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). As the protesters’ numbers grow, they are soon besieged by pro-government "thugs" who try to disperse the demonstration by force, which only causes more outraged revolutionaries to flock to the scene. People die, and Egyptians’ sense of security grows even more frayed. Rinse and repeat.

It was all happening again in Cairo today — ironically, Hosni Mubarak’s birthday. Egyptian military police and plainclothes government supporters have used overwhelming force to push protesters, who threw stones (which some soldiers threw back), away from the Ministry of Defense. The clashes come two days after violence at the same protest site left 11 people dead. Pictures today show Army armored personnel carriers lined up against milling protesters, while an extraordinary video of clashes at the same site last Saturday shows a man shooting the cameraman filming him.

But while the cycle of violence is tragically predictable, how the clashes will affect Egypt’s upcoming presidential election is not. Cartoonist Carlos Latuff summed up the perspective of the revolutionaries with this drawing, showing SCAF head Mohamad Tantawi feeding coins into a coin into a pro-government thug beating a protester. Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has aligned himself with the protesters, making an appearance at the Ministry of Defense protest site on May 2 and suspending his campaign over the violence.

On Friday, as the clashes were ongoing, Aboul Fotouh was roughly 10 miles away, addressing a rally in the Cairo neighborhood of Maadi. Speaking of the revolutionary protesters who have taken to the streets over the past year, he said, "These youths who have sacrificed their lives and their health and even their eyes, there blood has been spilled out of love for Egypt."

But the political divide on how to respond to these events is deepening. Aboul Fotouh’s chief rival, former Arab League head Amr Moussa, has expressed grief over the loss of life — he suspended his campaign for three days after the May 2 clashes, according to campaign officials. But has also used them to drive home his campaign plank of the need for a return to stability: His statement condemning the violence ended with the line "Down with the rule of chaos," a play off of protesters’ common chant, "down with military rule." On May 2, Moussa reportedly blasted the April 6 Movement, which played a prominent role at the Ministry of Defense protests, as a force that would spread chaos, foment corruption, and delay Egypt’s development.

Given the tumultuous events in the capital, it is hard to believe that Egypt is preparing to hold a presidential election in 19 days. But these clashes are going to be an inescapable political issue going forward — and, like in any campaign, the candidates’ inclination will be to highlight the contrasts between their positions as election day nears. The rifts in Egypt are going to grow wider before they have a chance to heal.