Two months after the fall of the President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Ehab Kotb of IWPR’s Middle East programme looks at the still powerful role of the military.
Demonstrations in Tahrir Square last week left at least two people dead after soldiers opened fire on protesters who refused to disperse. This week, a military court sentenced a blogger to three years in jail for criticising the armed forces.
How do you think the recent violence has affected public attitudes towards the army and the transition to democracy?
There was a great atmosphere last Friday (April 8) in Tahrir Square, during the daytime. It was very peaceful, with not a single policeman or soldier in sight, not one uniform visible anywhere. People were selling snacks and tea, and groups were gathering to discuss politics.
As the day went on, the numbers increased, and although I had left by this time, friends told me that there were a million people there by late evening. Some people had the idea of staying there overnight, even though there’s a curfew between 2am and 5am.
The army tried to remove them by force, and began firing. I understand that two people were killed and more than 70 were injured, most of them by live fire.
People were shocked and found it hard to believe that the army could act with such violence. They are now asking whether the honeymoon between the army and the public is finally over. That’s a big question, and there’s no clear answer to it.
Are there fears that the Egyptian military is too powerful?
The army has faced a lot of criticism for being slow to bring about change and for not being proactive enough. Many Egyptians feel that the military will only act in response to pressure; that it will only make changes if people are out protesting. Yet at the same time, people are being told to leave Tahrir Square and go back to their daily lives.
So I think we will see more tension and more violence unless the army changes the way it handles these situations.
Walking past Tahrir Square today, I saw that it was closed to the public. Some demonstrators wanted it to reopen and were trying to remove army barricades to allow more people to join them. There was no violence at that point, but tensions were apparent.
Has the nature of protests on Tahrir Square changed, and the intentions of those taking part?
When I was in Tahrir Square last Friday, I noticed some distinct changes from earlier demonstrations. Many different groups have emerged, each setting up platforms from where they debate their views.
What scared me was that some people were calling for the execution of Mubarak. That’s worrying, since what we’ve been fighting for was for justice to apply to everyone – for no-one to be above the law. The public shouldn’t have the right to be judge, jury and executioner.
Another relatively new phenomenon is that different groups seem to be adopting positions on other struggles –some were talking about the situation in Gaza and Palestine, while others were flying the revolutionary flag of Libya. I think this shows we are losing our focus a little. One of the great things about the Egyptian revolution was that it concentrated on domestic issues.
The revolution isn’t over yet, our problems haven’t been solved yet, and we can’t afford to be distracted. The old regime has gone, but elements of the system remain unchanged. You can’t deal with years of corruption and repression overnight, and it is important that we don’t lose sight of that.
What does the jailing of blogger Maikel Nabil for supposedly criticising the military say about moving on from the Mubarak era?
In general, the military do not appear to have interfered too much in freedom of speech here. The newspapers are critical of the army, and the protestors in Tahrir Square are also voicing their concerns. But the imprisonment of the blogger has led some people to fear that the army is applying the law in an arbitrary way. In any case, the army is fundamentally not designed or equipped to run a justice system. This is one of the things that need to be changed, and soon.
The issue of trial by military court is contentious. It makes sense for people involved in violent crime to face rapid trial and sentencing by a court martial, but it’s also dangerous.
Many senior officials from the Mubarak era remain at large. Others have been called in for questioning, but only two months after the regime fell, giving them enough time to cover their tracks and hire expensive lawyers.
Mubarak gave a speech the other day that infuriated many people. He denied having stolen money from the people of Egypt, or possessing any of these funds. This has added to our sense of frustration and to the feeling that the revolution is far from over.