Egypt: the military's gambit

As most of you know by now, the Egyptian army beat up protestors on Friday night, with some apparently donning masks to hide their identity and using electric cattle prods. The army subsequently apologized, and then once again stressed the need for everyone to go home, and then spoke of the usual foreign dangers against the sanctity of the Egyptian people, etc.

Sarah Carr as always has an account that captures the mood, read it in full:

One protestor was in tears, shouting, “the army is hitting us! The army is hitting us!” There has long been popular adoration of, and respect for the army, reinforced since the tanks rolled in on the 28th. It will be interesting to see whether last night’s episode in any way shakes this, or whether it rallies more people around the demand that Shafiq resigns.

The army has already subjected us to a barrage of statements on Facebook about the incident, like a teenage girl discussing boy problems. Statement no. 22 was particularly odd. Entitled “apology” it then said that the “encounters” between the military police and the great Egyptian people were “unintentional” (“OMG I didn’t mean to hurt you babe!!!! Luv u 4ever xoxoxoxo)

Statement no. 24 meanwhile goes on about how the army has got our back but there exist fears of “infiltrating elements” trying to corrupt the revolution who threw stones and bottles at the armed forces (“How cld u treat me like this I hate u you’ve broken my heart you bastard!! :-( (((((”).

This is all very Mubarak and must desist.

I'm not sure how long the general Egyptian public can maintain the bizarre idea that the army is so great. This is the army that took power in a coup in 1952 and ended political pluralism, lost tons of wars after that and continued to justify its predation on the national budget despite not having had to fight anyone since 1973 (if you exclude the Libyans very briefly in the late 1970s and those field hospitals sent to Iraq and Kosovo in the 1990s), that has absolutely no experience policing and yet is getting military police and military intelligence to carry out that function (when their primary job has been keeping an eye on rank and file). It is the army that put Mubarak in place in six days after the assassination of Sadat, and now runs things through a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is headed by Mubarak loyalist Mohammed Hussein Tantawi (in place since 1992) and a government headed by former chief of the Air Force Ahmed Chafiq (who considers Mubarak his "spiritual father.") Not to mention, of course, the army that owned the land in Tagammu al-Khamiss outside of Cairo that was sold for the spectacular profits by several real estate developers, or the army that continues to employ conscripts as free labor in various places.

In answer to the question that started the preceding paragraph, I think actually the army can maintain that illusion for a long time. Eleven years in Egypt have taught me to never underestimate the power of the ERDF — the Egyptian Reality Distortion Field. It is a surprisingly flexible and adaptable weapon, even in the face of the most stubborn facts. Part of this is information manipulation, of course — it helps that the military has just appointed one of its own to run the Egyptian Radio and Television Union — but also a certain amount of political caution. Hossam el-Hamalawy, never one to hold on to illusions about power, wrote after the clash with the army:

Everyone is rightly upset about what the army did in Tahrir Square last night. Let’s remember, however, the military already moved against peaceful protesters in Suez, and is accused of involvement of torture and arrest of hundreds during the uprising. And almost everyday there is a statement from the army warning strikers and protesters, coupled with an orchestrated media campaign in both state and private TV channels discrediting labor strikes and renewed protests in Tahrir. What happened last night should not come as a shock.

If Mubarak’s regime was corrupt (and it was), then why do we treat the military institution, which provided the backbone of his dictatorship, as “neutral” or “pure”? The leadership of this institution, namely the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are part of Mubarak’s regime. And any real change would affect their privileges and control.

We cannot and will not carry up arms against the army. I salute and support all the efforts for resuming the protests in Tahrir, including the one planned for today at 2pm. But still, the most effective weapon is the mass strikes.

Mass strikes is precisely what the army fears the most, along with the Egyptian elite for which it represents both economic disaster and the rise of mob rule. Dealing with 30 years of socio-economic neglect is one of the biggest challenge Egypt faces, and — considering the limited means to carry out an immediate improvement — the country's interim rulers have to sell a message of hope and confidence. So far, so-so.

A body of evidence is accumulating about human rights abuses by the armed forces since January 28, the day it came out onto the streets. A kind of detention/interrogation room appears to still be in existence at the Egyptian Museum for use by military police, and those taken there report being beaten and sexual harassed. None of this is being pursued by the authorities, since the authorities are the military.

There is little alternative that most Egyptians would find palatable to the army. But there are methods to constrain its power and pressure it to ensure as optimal a transition as possible. The most significant one is the media: by keeping the spotlight on the army's behavior, it raises the costs of repression and keeps it checked. The other is power-sharing with civilians. People like Muhammad ElBaradei have advocated the creation of a transitional council to replace the presidency that would include one military figure and two or more civilians. The realist critique of this is that the military figure would be much more powerful and able to simply over-rule the civilians. But this does not take into account the civilians' willingness to make the internal debates of the council a matter of public debate. ElBaradei should be commended for being one of the few opposition leaders not to have taken a reflexive "we love the military" attitude, a reminder that even if he's been politically inneffective, at least he's intellectually coherent.

We are quickly headed to a time when the military will have solidified its legitimacy to the extent that it will be much harder to pressure. I wager (along with some smart observers I've discussed this with) that the turning point will come within two months if the referendum on constitutional amendments takes place as expected. Although the amendments may signal some great improvements, such as putting in term limits on the presidency, but will also deliver the interim military government a clear public mandate. You can expect millions of Egyptians voting overwhelmingly in favor of the amended constitution, delivering a clear sign of public support for the transition model chosen by the military. It will be difficult for opposition groups to then challenge the army, which can point to this popular mandate as the source of its legitimacy.

In conclusion, since I'm American and not Egyptian, I would reiterate my earlier call for the suspension of US aid to the Egyptian military until a credible civilian government is restored. There would be no clearer indication that what the Obama administration, in calling for a genuine transition in Egypt, is itself being genuine. But, in all likeliness, it is probably mostly interested in keeping a channel of communications with the military and a reliable ally in a military-dominated Egypt. Smart democracy advocates should put pressure the US government to take a closer look at the Egyptian military's behavior, and thus restrict its room for maneuver in the public debate over US-Egyptian relations.

Update: I wanted to add the following passage from Max Rodenbecks' recent NYRB piece, which I earlier linked to, and offers some food for thought about the military:

As in Tunisia, Egypt’s army stepped in to maintain order during the unrest, and honorably refrained from using force. Eighteen generals of the military high command now officially run the country, having suspended the constitution and disbanded parliament. They have met with opposition figures, declared support for the revolution’s aims, celebrated its martyrs, pledged a transition to civilian rule within six months, and appointed a commission to revise electoral rules. They have also promised to pursue cases of corruption involving former officials, several of whom are under investigation or in custody.

Yet the military’s long legacy as a privileged pillar of the outgoing regime still provokes wariness. Some fear that the army’s haste to hold elections without a more thorough constitutional overhaul suggests a desire to preserve a system whereby a powerful presidency has shielded the military from civilian scrutiny. They also worry that too fast a transition would benefit both the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party, the only political organizations with an entrenched street presence, at the expense of newer, less experienced political forces. Instead, prominent intellectuals have counseled the creation of a stronger, more representative interim government, capable of overseeing a longer and more measured period of transition.

Much of Egypt’s nomenclatura consists of current and former army officers like Mubarak himself. Their inbuilt resistance to truly revolutionary change can be seen in the high command’s reluctance, so far, to countenance any investigation of the Mubarak family, or to outline a comprehensive vision for reform. They have yet to abolish Egypt’s notorious emergency law, or to release remaining political prisoners. Perhaps most disturbingly, the military has charged the last cabinet appointed by Mubarak with continuing to run the daily affairs of government. In short, it is not yet clear whether the generals’ understanding of “democracy” is closer to Mubarak’s than to the hopes so vividly expressed by their people.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.