from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Miscalculations of Egypt’s Military

November 22, 2011

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A protester throws a tear gas canister, which had earlier been thrown by riot police, near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 20, 2011.
A protester throws a tear gas canister, which had earlier been thrown by riot police, near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 20, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

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Once again, tear gas hangs over Tahrir Square. For the third straight day, Egyptian activists, ordinary citizens, Islamists, and soccer hooligans called the "Ultras" battled the Central Security Forces (CSF) -- paramilitary troops under the command of the Ministry of Interior. The revitalized protest movement has prompted suggestions that Cairo may be on the verge of another revolutionary wave, similar to the one that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February.

As one Egyptian activist on Twitter noted gleefully, "I went to sleep and I woke up on January 28th [the Day of Rage]." But as the death toll currently stands at 23 and the wounded at more than 1,700, how is it that some Egyptians still long for what has been a spasm of violence and fear?

What is happening in Tahrir Square -- as frightening as it is -- may very well be a clarifying moment. From the start, the Egyptian military’s declarations that it was preparing the ground for democracy were far from credible. The officers’ interest in remaining the sole source of political legitimacy and authority, the military’s economic interests, and the Ministry of Defense’s conception of stability are simply not compatible with a more democratic Egypt.

The proximate cause for the current confrontations in Cairo -- and now it seems elsewhere around the country -- is the result of trigger-happy security forces. They presumably thought that clearing Tahrir Square of a few hundred protesters would be an easy win and help re-establish their authority. Yet even though some lowly CSF troopers and military policemen are directly responsible for the violence engulfing central Cairo, it’s the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that is clearly at fault for creating an environment that made the ongoing clashes inevitable.

Over the past nine months, SCAF’s attempt at governing has faltered at every conceivable step, alienating former allies and laying the ground for the current unrest. SCAF chairman Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and his officers have never offered Egyptians a political horizon, never empowered civilian ministers, and favored fleeting tactical agreements with political groups over serious negotiations. That’s how you get stunning ironies like the 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz -- a prominent activist -- dragged before a military tribunal for merely insulting Tantawi and the SCAF, while Mubarak regime stalwarts like former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, a man responsible for actually killing Egyptians, goes before civilian judges who are suspected of being sympathetic to him.

Reservations about the SCAF’s true intentions were further reinforced with their efforts to prejudice the content of Egypt’s new constitution before the drafting process had even begun. It embraced a series of supra-constitutional principles designed to carve out an influential place for the armed forces in fashion similar to the privileges that Turkey’s military enjoyed until recently. The idea was actually the brainchild of civilians such as Judge Hisham Bastawisi -- an ostensible liberal who was one of the first people to outline an enduring political role for the military -- and it is unclear whether he was working with the SCAF, or whether the military simply embraced the ideas floating around in the public debate that best suited their interests. Regardless, there can be no democracy in Egypt without civilian control of the armed forces. As to precedent, all the claims that the Turkish military prepared the ground for Turkey’s transition to democracy through repression, forcing Islamists to moderate, run counter to both logic and history.

The long and convoluted electoral process has only fueled suspicions about the SCAF’s intentions. Of course, just a few months ago, liberal and revolutionary groups -- fearing that they would be wiped out by the better-organized Islamist movements -- were begging the SCAF for more time. Still, the drawn-out process, and hints that a presidential election would not be held until early 2013, fueled fears that the military was growing comfortable exercising direct executive authority.

However understandable those fears may be, they are probably a misreading of the SCAF’s true intentions. Rather, the military has sought to set up a process that would ensure security during the elections, and would produce a government that was legitimate enough -- but not too strong that it could challenge the military’s continued influence. That’s a tall order for a group that has not demonstrated a deft political touch, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to hand over day-to-day governance to civilians -- while retaining overall authority. No wonder, then, that Egyptians are frustrated and angry by the pace and quality of their transition.

The root of the problem is an out-of-touch and dated worldview that is at the heart of the military’s miscalculations. First, the officers believe what Mubarak believed -- that the people demonstrating in Tahrir and elsewhere in the country do not come from that mythical and vast "silent majority," and are thus not an authentic representation of Egypt. Second, because of their training and socialization, the officers believe they know what is best for the country. Finally, precisely because they believe in the silent majority and their own integral role in Egypt’s political future, Tantawi and his team do not understand that -- while some unscientific surveys, like the one conducted by the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies this fall, indicate that large numbers of Egyptians support the military -- Egyptians clearly do not want the SCAF to salvage what it can of the previous regime with all its manipulations, corruption, and violence.

The battle on the streets now reflects a broader political battle for legitimacy that has been waged for months. The military -- which clings to the legitimacy offered from the 1952 Free Officers coup -- is engaged in a rear-guard action against competitors in the Egyptian political system. These include revolutionary groups, which may not necessarily seek power but which are the keepers of the promise of Tahrir Square. The Islamists, the military’s natural competitor for power, offer their own religiously-tinged vision of Egypt’s future and a different kind of authority and legitimacy than both the military and the revolutionary groups. And the left wing -- the sleeping giant of Egyptian politics -- still sleeps; but it may yet assert itself as a significant competitor: Egypt’s revolutionary narrative is bound up in powerful notions of social justice that resonate deeply with large numbers of Egyptians.

Egypt’s present impasse, and the violence that is its result, is a critical moment in the political transition. Of course, no one wants to see Egyptians doused with tear gas, shot indiscriminately with rubber bullets, or mowed down with armored vehicles -- but the willingness to take to the streets once again demonstrates that, in Egypt’s battle of legitimacies, people are not going to willingly succumb to the military.

Inexplicably, the officers have pursued this confrontation in a way that only fuels more determined opposition to the continuation of the military’s rule. It seems they have drawn a completely different conclusion from everyone else about who and what brought Mubarak’s rule to an end. The officers seem to truly believe that they were responsible for the former president’s demise, not the people in the streets. And like Mubarak -- who in his waning days, still thought he knew what was best for his people -- this willful ignorance of Egypt’s real political dynamics could be the SCAF’s own undoing.


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