By Khaled Diab
As millions of Egyptians cast their first democratic vote in decades, recent upheavals confirm that Egypt's military is the biggest threat to freedom.
Wednesday 30 November 2011
Ahmed Harara is a walking metaphor for the Egyptian revolution. During the struggle to topple the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, he was blinded in one eye by a shotgun pellet fired by riot police. In the latest uprising against Egypt's “transitional” rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Harara lost his second eye, again to shotgun pellets. Now blinded in both eyes, the brave activist has returned to Tahrir square and a hero's welcome.
Like Harara, the Egyptian people metaphorically lost one eye in their fight against Mubarak and the other in their struggle against the generals who replaced him. Nevertheless, they are still drawn by the alluring light of freedom at the end of the tunnel.
Just as the Egyptian revolution seemed to be running out of steam, the recent crackdown, which has left dozens dead and hundreds injured, has re-galvanised protesters, triggering what some have referred to as “Revolution II”. Egyptians are outraged and defiant. They are outraged that the self-appointed guardians of their revolution have bitten the hand of peace and trust the people of Egypt had extended to them. One furious Egyptian journalist even likened the army's betrayal of the revolution to a therapist re-raping a rape victim.
The renewed vigour of the protests culminated last weekend with the “Last Chance Friday” rally on Tahrir square, where hundreds of thousands defiantly refused to be placated by the army's apology for the recent violence. They called for Monday's parliamentary elections to be postponed and demanded that SCAF and its freshly minted transitional prime minister, long-time Mubarak loyalist Kamal el-Ganzouri, step down in favour of a “national salvation government” headed by Egyptian Nobel peace laureate Mohamed Elbardei.
Needless to say, this all fell on deaf ears and the generals decided to go ahead with the elections despite the widespread sense of anger and protest. “We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in these elections,” Egypt's de facto leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, warned ominously.
This general air 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.
“SCAF's first contact with the Egyptian people was a military salute to the revolution's martyrs. This, together with the fact that the army did not visibly shoot at the protesters, portrayed SCAF as heroes,” recalls Aida Seif el-Dawla, the prominent human rights activist and founder of the Nadim Centre for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
Despite this mood of optimism, sceptics, including myself, warned from the start that SCAF is the villain, rather than the hero, of the piece who, in a bid to save the body of the regime, unceremoniously decapitated it. And following a brief honeymoon period, millions of Egyptians soon saw SCAF's true face behind the mask of conciliation. Despite some improvements, the generals' performance since February has confirmed that the army, after six decades on Egypt's throne, has no intention of ceding power.
Activists, journalists and ordinary citizens I have spoken to catalogue a long list of abuses and errors which SCAF has committed in the nine months or so since Mubarak's downfall. These include trying to load the dice of reform in their own favour, endemic human rights abuses, such as the summary military trials of thousands of activists and critics, alleged backroom deals with the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the apparent attempt to use ‘divide and rule' tactics by stoking divisions within the opposition, or by fuelling religious tension and class hatred.
“The biggest mistake the generals made was to choose to spearhead the counterrevolution and abort all meaningful change,” observes Wael Eskandar, a young Egyptian journalist and blogger. “Another mistake was not delivering on most of the promises they've made. That lost them credibility.”
But speaking of “mistakes” and “errors” would suggest good intentions but bad execution, which is far from the reality of the situation. “SCAF didn't make any ‘mistakes',” reflects Seif el-Dawla sceptically. “They simply lost patience and removed the mask of ‘protecting the revolution', exposing their ugly, violent face.”
Karim Medhat Ennarah, a young activist who has been involved with the 6 April Youth Movement, which is widely credited as being one of the main driving forces behind the revolution, agrees: “I think they intended to make a mess of the transitional period to create a sense of panic among the population that would give them the excuse they needed to put the brakes on any kind of institutional reform.”
However, the generals, like Mubarak before them, did miscalculate the Egyptian people's resolve and determination to see change. “They thought they could neutralise the population's raw anger. They failed to realise that they are not totally in control of all the different factors,” notes Ennarah.
While surprising and bewildering, SCAF's unimaginative, if somewhat more skilful, use of its former boss's tactics is hardly surprising given that the generals are led by one of Mubarak's most loyal sidekicks, in close coordination with members of the former ruling party and big business, as well as the army's “sponsors” in Washington.
“SCAF is just part of the old regime… It is following the same blueprint,” says Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. Abou Zeid points to SCAF's extensive control of the transitional government and its tight control of information as evidence of this.
It is far too early to speculate on the eventual results of the parliamentary elections, which started on Monday to massive turnouts and are scheduled to take a marathon four months. However, one outcome seems certain, unless the direct democracy of the Egyptian streets changes matters: like Egypt's experiment with liberal democracy in the years prior to the 1952 revolution, this parliament will be a toothless talking shop behind which Egypt's uncrowned khaki kings can take political cover.
“SCAF will never allow any real democracy,” is Eskandar's gloomy forecast. “What they want is false layers of legitimacy for Egyptians to direct their anger at.”
The generals also have designs on running the future Egypt like invisible puppeteers. “Those who want elections hope that SCAF will leave after the elections. To my knowledge, no military regime left through elections,” says Seif el-Dawla. She notes that “SCAF has already announced that no civilian president will appoint the minister of defence or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.” This would protect the army's ample cookie jar for the generals and their subordinates and keep it out of the reach of the greedy, ungrateful hands of the public.
With Egyptian democracy caught by the army in a pincer movement, where to from here?
“The best way forward for Egypt is to get honest people into power and end SCAF's reign,” concludes Eskandar. “To achieve this, we must either have a civilian presidential council with names that Egyptians can trust, or we can have a transitional government with real powers.”
But calls for the army's immediate return to the barracks worry some. “SCAF leaving now will create a void,” believes Abou Zeid. “We no longer trust the ministry of the interior to be the backbone of our internal security and stability. The people don't have any source of protection except for the armed forces.”
However, the army's recent use of excessive violence against protesters has left Egyptians seething, with many comparing the military unfavourably to the police and state security thugs who attacked protesters at the start of the revolution.
This has led many to harden their position towards SCAF. “I urge the international community to boycott SCAF,” says Sabah Hamamou, a journalist with the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, who also calls for international supervision of Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections. One way to do this without hurting ordinary Egyptians is for the United States to turn off its substantial military aid pipe to Egypt, suggests an “ordinary” Egyptian, Ahmed Mansour, who works as a consultant.
So, what can be done to foil SCAF's plans to retain Egypt as its political fiefdom?
Since SCAF refuses to give Egyptians a proper representative democracy with true authority, Egyptians must continue to exercise their street version of direct democracy until their demands are met. Although the revolution has cost Egyptians a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and hardship, returning to ‘business as usual' would make all these losses, at least in part, futile.
But can the revolution sustain the monumental pace it has so far maintained? Well, every day, Egyptians defy expectations with their appetite for freedom, from regularly taking to the streets to queuing for hours outside polling stations. Many activists and observers expect Egyptians to continue doing so.
“I don't think this is the final phase of the revolution,” predicts Seif el-Dawla. “The workers have not joined yet, and their participation was crucial in February.”
This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 29 November 2011.