Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Egyptian Military Biggest Threat To Democracy

Army presented itself as saviour of spring revolution, but is proving to be just the opposite.
By Khaled Diab
  • Demonstrators in Cairo, November 26, 2011. (Photo: Lilian Wagdy/Flickr)
    Demonstrators in Cairo, November 26, 2011. (Photo: Lilian Wagdy/Flickr)

Ahmed Harara is a walking metaphor for the Egyptian revolution. During the struggle to topple President Hosni Mubarak, he was blinded in one eye by a shotgun pellet fired by riot police. In the current uprising against Egypt’s “transitional” administration, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF, Harara lost his other eye, again to shotgun pellets.

Now blind in both eyes, this courageous activist has returned to Tahrir Square and a hero’s welcome.

Just like Harara, the Egyptian people suffered losses fighting against Mubarak, and again in their struggle against the generals who replaced him. Yet they are still drawn to the light at the end of the tunnel.

At a time when the Egyptian revolution seemed to be faltering, the recent crackdown on demonstrations, which has left dozens dead and hundreds injured, has re-energised the protest movement, and triggered what some are calling “Revolution 2”.

Egyptians are outraged and defiant. They are furious that SCAF, the self-appointed guardian of their revolution, has bitten the hand they extended to it.

The renewed protests culminated in the “Last Chance Friday” rally on Tahrir Square on November 25, in which hundreds of thousands of people made it clear they would not be placated by the army’s apology for recent violence. They called for the postponement of parliamentary elections slated to begin on November 28, and demanded that SCAF and the new transitional prime minister, long-time Mubarak loyalist Kamal el-Ganzouri, step down in favour of a “government of national salvation” to be headed by Nobel peace laureate Mohamed Elbaradei.

Needless to say, their calls fell on deaf ears and the generals decided to go ahead with the elections anyway.

“We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections,” Egypt’s de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, warned ominously.

The general mood of hostility towards the generals is a far cry from the chants of “the army and the people are a single hand” which resonated across Egypt back in February when SCAF persuaded an intransigent Mubarak to fall on his sword, and the army – in contrast to the police and security agencies – did not attack the crowds.

Despite that early optimism, sceptics warned from the start that SCAF was the villain rather than the hero of the piece, prepared to unceremoniously decapitate the regime in order to save the body.

Millions of Egyptians soon discerned SCAF’s true face behind its conciliatory gestures. Although some changes were made, developments since February show that after six decades of rule, the army has no intention of ceding power.

Activists, journalists and other Egyptians I have spoken to catalogue a long list of sins committed by SCAF in its nine-month rule. These include efforts to skew reforms in their own favour, summary military trials for thousands of activists and regime critics, alleged backroom deals with the Muslim Brotherhood, and an apparent attempt to divide and rule by creating division within the opposition and fuelling religious and class tensions.

“The biggest mistake the generals made was to choose to spearhead a counter-revolution and abort all meaningful change,” journalist and blogger Wael Eskandar said. “Another mistake was not delivering on most of the promises they’ve made. That lost them credibility.”

Talk of “mistakes” might suggest good intentions but bad execution. That is not the case, according to Aida Seif el-Dawla, a prominent human rights activist and founder of the Nadim Centre for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

“SCAF didn’t make any mistakes,” she said. “It simply lost patience and removed the mask of ‘protecting the revolution’ to expose its ugly and violent face.”

Like Mubarak before them, the generals misread the Egyptian people’s determination to see change through.

“They thought they could neutralise the population’s raw anger. They failed to realise that they are not in total control of all the different factors,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a young activist involved with the April 6 youth movement, widely credited as one of the main driving forces behind the revolution.

The generals’ use of Mubarak-era tactics is hardly surprising, given that their leader was one of the former president’s most loyal associates.

“SCAF is just part of the old regime… It is following the same blueprint,” feminist activist Gihan Abou Zeid said, noting the way the military has controlled both the transitional government and the flow of information.

It is far too early to speculate about the eventual results of the parliamentary elections, which started with a massive turnout on November 28 and are scheduled to take four months.

However, one thing seems certain – unless popular protest forces further reforms, the new parliament will be an ineffectual talking shop that exists solely to provide political cover for Egypt’s uncrowned military rulers.

“SCAF will never allow any real democracy,” Eskandar said. “What they want is false layers of legitimacy for Egyptians to direct their anger at.”

Seif el-Dawla expressed similar concerns, suggesting that any hopes SCAF would step aside following the elections were illusory.

“To my knowledge, no military regime has ever left through elections,” she added.

Sabah Hamamou, a journalist with the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, is among those who would like the international community to isolate SCAF.

Since the military looks set to deny Egyptians a representative democracy that wields real powers, the people will have to pursue direct democracy on the streets until their demands are met.

One question is whether the revolution can sustain the pace it has maintained so far. Every day, Egyptians defy all expectations with their appetite for freedom, taking to the streets to demonstrate or queuing for hours outside polling stations.

Many observers expect this to continue. This revolution has cost people a great deal of blood, sweat and tears, and returning to business as usual would negate these losses, at least in part.

Seif el-Dawla points out that working-class Egyptians have not joined the protests yet, and their support was crucial to the February uprising.

“I don’t think this is the final phase of the revolution,” she said.

Khaled Diab is a Jerusalem-based Egyptian journalist.
 

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