The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

All of Mubarak's Men

The above video, by the activist and video artist once known as Ahmed Sherif, takes Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to task for the behavior of the military since it took over from Mubarak on February 10. If you've been following this blog and others you'll know that activists have documented torture at the hands of military police at the Egyptian Museum, the violent breakup of protests at Cairo University, and a recent decision to ban protests and strikes.  Last night there was a demonstration at Tahrir Square against this decision, in which protestors called for the trial of Tantawi alongside Mubarak. According to various sources, Egyptian media have been given instructions against criticizing the army and its senior leaders — an indeed no Egyptian newspaper has mentioned the allegations of torture at the Egyptian Museum, despite reports by Human Rights Watch and local NGOs.

Tantawi has been Hosni Mubarak's minister of defense since 1992 and is a key component of his regime. As well as excellent relations with the United States, the conservative Tantawi also has excellent relations with Saudi Arabia. There are those who fear that Saudi Arabia — the dominant Arab power over the last 20 years — will back men like Tantawi to limit the achievements of the revolution, which in the medium-term could upset Saudi dominance over the region and its influence over Egypt specifically (remember the 1960s-1970s period was defined in large part by an Egyptian-Saudi rivalry over Arab leadership; Saudi won out with US backing, leading in part to the disastrous rise of Saudi-financed conservatism in the Arab world.) Moreover, as one of the Mubarak regime's principals he clearly had a responsibility in many of the decisions taken in the last decade of massive regressions in terms of political freedoms and the expansion of torture, as well over issues related to corruption.

This issue right now is of rising concern among activists but not really discussed much among ordinary Egyptians. It's worth remembering that the army could have backed Mubarak and fired on protestors, which is why it is seen today as an instrument of the revolution by most people. Some have suggested that orders to that effect were given but were not implemented, and the SCAF today represents an uneasy decision to put aside differences among officers for the sake of Egypt's stability. The reports of an assassination attempt against Omar Suleiman, and of a confrontation at the presidency between an armored division and the Republican Guards on February 10, does suggest there were internal divisions with the military till late in the game — before Mubarak stepped down but after he no longer was so relevant.

Probably the biggest unanswered questions in Egypt today have nothing to do with the constitutional referendum, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and other questions, but rather: what is the state of the debate within the military? What vision of Egypt's future does it have? Who within it wields the most authority?