Had the army not pulled the rug from under Mubarak’s feet, siding with protesters in Tahrir Square, the story of Egypt’s revolution might have resembled those of Syria, Yemen and even Libya, more closely. A bitter confrontation would have cost hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, significantly delaying the old president’s fall. The chant that reverberated around Egypt’s squares in the early post-Mubarak days, as euphoric Egyptians embraced soldiers, was “The people and the army are one hand”. This was not only the people’s revolution, but the army’s too. But it is now clear that the army does not perceive itself as a partner in the revolution, but as its representative and guardian: the sole bearer of its legitimacy.
The honeymoon between military and protesters did not last long. Tahrir Square, once the scene of wild celebrations, turned into a battlefield as the army moved to disperse activists beating them with clubs and electric rods, and even firing live ammunition, leading to many casualties. Hundreds have been thrown in jail. Between 28 January and 29 August, almost 12,000 civilians were tried in military tribunals – far more than Mubarak managed in 30 years of dictatorship. Torture by police and military personnel remains widespread, with hundreds of reports of beatings, electrocution, and even sexual assault.
Days after assuming power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) began to talk tough, declaring that it would not tolerate strikes, pickets “or any action that disrupts the country’s security”, and imposing prison sentences on those who defied the ban. The army has since gone further, introducing a ban on public protest and curfews. This seems to have only strengthened activists’ resolve, as the frequent demonstrations held in Tahrir Square testify.
Recently, exploiting the climate of tension heightened by the storming of the Israeli embassy, the army reactivated the state of emergency, announcing that it will remain in force until next June – dashing popular demands for a swift end to the draconian code that formed the constitutional underpinning for Mubarak’s dictatorship, and served as his chief means of stifling dissent for three decades. In an indication of the widening rift between the judiciary and the army, Tareq al-Bishri, a respected judge who chaired the committee for the revision of the constitution, responded by declaring martial law invalid from 20 September 2011, as stipulated by article 59 of the constitutional referendum of 19 March 2011.
If the state of emergency is one focal point of mounting political discontent, elections pledged for this month are another. The supreme council recently announced that elections would be held in November instead, with no guarantee that the new date would be adhered to. A complex set of electoral rules has not made things any better, with political parties demanding a vote exclusively based on the party proportional list system, and the army allowing individual candidacy as well – a move that critics say is designed to enable remnants of the ousted regime to sneak back to power.
Such fears have been intensified by the enlarging of electoral districts, making it difficult for citizens to vote and candidates to organise election campaigns over vast areas such as “North Cairo”, which includes no fewer than 5 million citizens.
The backdrop for all the army’s decisions over the past eight months is its concern over its position in the emerging political system. The generals realise that there can be no return to 1952, when the “Free Officers” seized power and controlled the political arena for more than two decades. But they seem unwilling to retreat to their barracks without first securing the upper hand in internal and foreign policy matters. It is not the day-to-day running of the country that the army is interested in. Rather, it wants to have a tight grip on key issues: strategic decisions, budgetary distribution, and above all keeping the military itself free from public scrutiny. That is the reason why the army has moved to lay down its “declaration of basic principles“, which would grant it sweeping authority and enable it to intercede in civilian politics.
In a telling statement, Major General Mamdouh Shaheen, a council member, declared: “We want a model similar to that found in Turkey … Egypt, as a country, needs to protect democracy from the Islamists, because we know that these people do not think democratically” – the same justification used by Arab dictators to legitimise despotism for decades. What this top officer means by the “Turkish model” is not its latest version, but the model that crippled political life for most of the past century.
His statement may be greeted warmly in London, Washington, Paris or Tel Aviv, by those anxious to prevent any meaningful change from taking place. Whether in suits or uniforms, the interests of the region’s autocrats seem destined to converge with those of the great western powers. And in this unholy marriage of internal and external obstructors of genuine reform lies the tragic plight of democracy and democrats in Arab lands.
By Soumaya Ghannoushi, a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental and African Studies.