The Irish Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Egyptians losing faith in army and brotherhood
The two-year anniversary of the dramatic fall of Egypt’s 30-year president was marked by protests and a candle-lit vigil yesterday in Tahrir Square, the cradle of the unfinished revolution gripping the country.
Military men and Muslim brothers who were dragged into the 18-day mass uprising and took over from Hosni Mubarak are blamed for disrupting the transition from autocracy to democracy.
During the uprising the military refused to act against the millions of Egyptians in the streets who believed the army supported them, prompting the chant: “The army and people hand in hand!”
Mubarak clung to the presidency until, on February 11th, 2011, his grim-faced vice-president Omar Suleiman, flanked by an officer, announced his departure.
The military high command assumed his powers, dismissed parliament and suspended, then amended, the constitution with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Once enemies, soldiers and brothers became reluctant partners. During the 17-month rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the brothers, Egypt’s sole organised political force, won elections to the lower and upper houses of parliament and the presidency.
While in power the soldiers provided for reasonably fair elections, but did not tackle the revolutionaries’ demand that Mubarak regime figures should be prosecuted for repression and corruption, reform of the security forces and judiciary and economic relief for the poor.
Instead, Mubarak-era figures were acquitted by judges appointed under his watch, only two ordinary policemen were jailed for killing protesters, hundreds were detained and 120 killed during demonstrations. Enormous crowds in the streets chanted, once again: “The people want the fall of the regime”, meaning the SCAF rather than Mubarak.
Vast economic empire
When the brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elevated to the presidency at the end of June last year, the generals retained key executive and all legislative powers until he and the SCAF’s younger generals retired the service chiefs.
Morsi assumed these powers, consolidated the brotherhood’s control and rammed through a fundamentalist-drafted constitution that gave the soldiers full control over the military’s vast economic empire and budget and the defence ministry.
However, the soldiers and brothers are uneasy partners. Under Morsi, the divided opposition has been sidelined and the “street” has become increasingly angry, frustrated, and violent. The chant raised in protests is: “The people want the fall of the regime”, this time the regime of the brothers.
The army is caught between the brothers and the people, who are abandoning the brotherhood because of its failure to deliver security, basic services, and accountability for Mubarak regime members and, now, senior officers. Army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has warned Morsi, the opposition and the “street” that the state is in danger of collapsing into chaos and suggested that the army could intervene to halt the downward slide.
Intervention could be risky because the SCAF has lost cre- dibility with the “street” due to its mismanagement of the post-Mubarak transition.
Although the army took power in 1952 and top officers headed Egypt’s governments for 60 years, the SCAF played a supporting rather than decision-making role on the political front. This explains why, when generals appointed by Mubarak had the power to take decisions against members of his fallen regime, they failed.
Furthermore, since Egypt’s unpopular 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the military has been transformed.
Billions of US dollars have been invested in the armed forces, which were restructured to keep the peace and, Egyptian pundits argue, “protect US interests in the region”.
At this point in time Washington provides the military with $1.3 billion (€969 million) in annual aid. Last week, as protesters gathered at the presidential palace, Morsi and the SCAF took delivery of four US F-16 fighter jets.
Army split possible
This suggests that the generals and brothers alike do not take into account popular resentment of Egypt’s alliance with the US and the West, and remain largely isolated from the country’s turbulence.
During recent clashes in Port Said army officers and soldiers rolled into the streets in tanks and took up positions around government buildings but refused to crack down on protesters.
Since common soldiers are conscripts, there is concern that they and junior officers could side with protesters, splitting the army, the only institution that the generals believe can maintain the country’s integrity.