Egypt’s Military Council: Between a rock and a hard place

The Egypt­ian armed forces, revered before the pop­u­lar revolt that oust­ed Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak, took pow­er in Feb­ru­ary with a pledge to lead the coun­try to free and fair elec­tions with­in six months. It has since stum­bled from cri­sis to cri­sis and extend­ed the peri­od for a han­dover of pow­er to 2013. 


RECENT ELECTIONS in Tunisia have moved the coun­try clos­er to ful­fill­ing the goals of the pop­u­lar revolt sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. How­ev­er the con­trast between the calm in Tunisia and the con­vul­sions of the post-Mubarak tran­si­ti­tion in Egypt could not be more stark.Following the first elec­tion since mass protests forced Pres­i­dent Zine El Abdine Ben Ali to resign in Jan­u­ary after 23 years in pow­er, erst­while foes – mod­er­ate Islamists and lib­er­al sec­u­lar­ists – are form­ing a coali­tion gov­ern­ment that promis­es to shelve dis­putes over reli­gion and focus on cre­at­ing jobs, writ­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion and reform­ing state insti­tu­tions shaped by decades of autocracy. 

In stark con­trast, the tran­si­tion in Egypt is marked by con­tin­ued protests; civil­ians being tried by mil­i­tary tri­bunals; arrests of dis­si­dent voic­es, most recent­ly includ­ing pop­u­lar blog­ger Alaa Abdel Fat­tah; a crack­down by sol­diers that killed 24 Cop­tic Chris­t­ian demon­stra­tors last month; and mount­ing sus­pi­cion that the rul­ing mil­i­tary is reluc­tant to relin­quish power. 

Between a rock and a hard place

No doubt, the com­plex­i­ties of gov­ern­ment in tran­si­tion have over­whelmed the 24 Mubarak-era gen­er­als that form the rul­ing Supreme Coun­cil of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been in office since Mubarak’s oust­ing. They have gov­erned the coun­try by tri­al and error, try­ing to sat­is­fy every­one and suc­ceed­ing in pleas­ing no one in the process. 

The military’s fum­bling has put it between a rock and a hard place. It wants to return to the bar­racks but only once it has secured its sta­tus and priv­i­leges as well as immu­ni­ty from future pros­e­cu­tion for alleged crimes com­mit­ted dur­ing the Mubarak era and the post-Mubarak tran­si­tion period. 

Sus­pi­cion of the military’s inten­tions were fuelled in ear­ly Novem­ber when it sought to per­suade polit­i­cal lead­ers to sign off on a set of con­sti­tu­tion­al guide­lines that would have put the armed forces beyond civil­ian scruti­ny, grant­ed it a right to veto drafts of a new con­sti­tu­tion and dis­miss and reap­point an elect­ed con­stituent assem­bly. The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, the country’s fore­most organ­ised polit­i­cal group, has called for mass protests on Novem­ber 18. 

The rea­son for the con­trast between Egypt and Tunisia lies in dif­fer­ences in how Mubarak and Ben Ali sought to curb poten­tial mil­i­tary threats to their rule. In one of his first moves after com­ing to pow­er, Ben Ali dec­i­mat­ed the mil­i­tary and ensured that unlike the Egypt­ian armed forces, it had no stake in the sys­tem he built. As a result, the Tunisian mil­i­tary had no rea­son to obstruct real change; indeed if any­thing, it was like­ly to ben­e­fit from reform that leads to a demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, in which it would have a legit­i­mate role under civil­ian supervision. 

For his part, Mubarak secured the military’s loy­al­ty by giv­ing it con­trol of nation­al as opposed to home­land secu­ri­ty and allow­ing it to build an inde­pen­dent rela­tion­ship with its US coun­ter­parts that enabled it to cre­ate a mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex as well as a com­mer­cial empire in oth­er sec­tors. It is those pre­rog­a­tives and perks that the mil­i­tary is now try­ing to preserve. 

Rever­sal of roles

As a result, the Egypt­ian mil­i­tary is caught in a vicious cir­cle in its effort to realise its goals and sta­bilise Egypt. Increas­ing­ly, it is resort­ing to the only thing it real­ly knows- by reviv­ing the very emer­gency laws the anti-Mubarak pro­test­ers want­ed to see abolished. 

The military’s efforts have been com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that it was forced to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for polic­ing the coun­try as the police and state secu­ri­ty forces, wide­ly seen as Mubarak’s repres­sive, hench­men, seek to come to grips with the post-Mubarak real­i­ty. Defeat­ed by anti-Mubarak pro­test­ers in bat­tles on Tahrir Square led by mil­i­tant soc­cer fans, the police has since become a demor­alised force too con­cerned about pol­ish­ing its tar­nished image to enforce law and order that would risk con­fronta­tion with the public. 

In its bid to restore order, the mil­i­tary has tried some 12,000 peo­ple since Mubarak’s down­fall in mil­i­tary courts whose pro­ceed­ings have been denounced by inter­na­tion­al human rights organ­i­sa­tions and Egyp­tians because of lack of due process and repeat­ed alle­ga­tions of tor­ture and forced vir­gin­i­ty tests. 

As a result, roles have been reversed in post-Mubarak Egypt with the mil­i­tary emerg­ing as a per­ceived force of repres­sion and the rank-and-file of the police back­ing demands for an end to mil­i­tary tri­als and stag­ing protests for salary hikes and improved work­ing con­di­tions. Nonethe­less, many ordi­nary Egypt­ian still see the armed forces as the only force that can guar­an­tee order and fix a sink­ing econ­o­my, plum­met­ing tourism and ris­ing crime. 

Look­ing at the wrong mod­el

Even so, the mil­i­tary has so far unsuc­cess­ful­ly sought to defend its record. Mil­i­tary spokes­men say they are doing their best to com­bat spi­ralling crime and street vio­lence. How­ev­er, many Egyp­tians find it hard to believe that one of the world’s larg­er mil­i­taries is inca­pable of curb­ing vio­lence on its own streets. “How can it be that an army and its lead­ers are unable to round up the thugs who have been on the streets for eight months?” is a typ­i­cal ques­tion asked. 

Increas­ing­ly, the Egypt­ian mil­i­tary is look­ing at the Turk­ish mil­i­tary as a mod­el. The prob­lem is the mod­el they are look­ing at is a decade old. Under Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Recep Tayy­ib Erdo­gan, Turkey’s mil­i­tary has evolved from being the country’s polit­i­cal guardian to one in which it is respon­si­ble under civil­ian super­vi­sion for Turkey’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty and the fight against terrorism. 

In doing so, the Egypt­ian mil­i­tary is fuelling con­cern that it will take anoth­er con­fronta­tion to dis­en­tan­gle it from pol­i­tics. Hav­ing shown its inep­ti­tude at solv­ing the country’s prob­lems, the mil­i­tary would be best advised to avoid any such confrontation. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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