Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Revolution Redux: the Military in Egypt

The first inkling, for many of us in Cairo last February, was the sinister text messages that appeared on our cell phones. I remember my eighty year old mother calling me in alarm: “The military forces are sending me SMS (as text messages are referred to in Egypt) to tell me to go home and observe the peace.”  I checked my own telephone and found the same unbidden message from ‘Egypt’s Armed Forces.’ They had apparently commandeered the country’s mobile servers to reach every subscriber with their stern warnings. It was the first indication that Mubarak was only nominally still in power, and that the Armed Forces were in de facto command.  

The Big Brother moment was chilling. But that was back during the honeymoon period with the military, when they were seen as protectors of the people from the abuses of the police and the thugs of the Mubarak regime. When the deposed president’s helicopter finally took to the skies on February 11th, bearing him away from Cairo, the military were credited with having given him the final ultimatum. In the days that followed, the SMS messages continued to pop up in our cell phone message boxes with directives to ‘go back to work, go back to school’. Now they were signed ‘the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’, a title ominously shortened to ‘the Supreme’ in Arabic newspaper headlines and given the acronym SCAF in English.

Even at the zenith of the military’s popularity with the people during the revolution, there were many, including me, who were skeptical that the generals, once they were in full control, would ever cede power again. After all, I grew up with the bitter legacy of a family devastated by an earlier ‘revolution’- the coup d’état of the colonels that deposed the king in 1952. What followed was sixty years of dictatorship by one military man after the other, Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, backed by an all-powerful military-industrial complex. If July 23rd 1952 was a coup that later claimed to be a revolution, then January 25th 2011 had the potential of turning from a genuine people’s revolution into a silent coup by the generals. To many of my mother’s generation, it was déjà vu: it was revolution redux.

Today, nine months later, the worst fears are confirmed. Ahead of the first potentially free parliamentary elections, the SCAF seeks to arrogate supra-constitutional powers for itself and entrench its immense privileges and economic clout. The Armed Forces are squashing free speech and dissent with as heavy a hand as the reviled police ever wielded. 

So it is time for the demonstrators to take to the squares again, in Tahrir, in Alexandria, and elsewhere around the country. Their courage, or their desperation, is nothing short of breathtaking. Particularly since, this time, the Muslim Brotherhood has abstained from joining in the protests, leaving the liberals and the students to battle the toxic gas and the bullets alone. In colluding with the military, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have betrayed their ruthless electoral ambitions and discredited themselves in the eyes of a large part of the population, including some of their own younger rank and file who joined the protests in defiance of directives to abstain.

The only predictable outcome of this second wave of protests with its rapidly rising body count is the postponement of Monday’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The liberals, for want of a better name for a faceless, leaderless and fragmented movement- the liberals welcome this outcome: if the election had gone ahead, returning a Muslim Brotherhood majority and entrenching the military’s supra-constitutional powers, the last chance for a civilian, democratic government would have been lost. The door might have clanged shut for another sixty years, and all the blood and sacrifice would have been to exchange one autocracy for a more authoritarian and sinister one. It remains to be seen what can be salvaged of the ideals of January 25th, and if a chaos-weary public and a crippled economy can withstand another trial by fire.  


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