The role of the army in Egypt’s new politics

Egypt’s army played a vital part in ousting Mubarak, but in the landscape now emerging, their role is more complex.

Between January and August the Egyptian army tried nearly 12,000 people [REUTERS]

Had the Egyptian army not pulled the rug from under Mubarak’s feet, siding with protesters in Tahrir Square, the story of its revolution may have more closely resembled the uprisings of Syria, Yemen, and perhaps even Libya. The bitter confrontation that would have erupted would have cost hundreds – if not thousands – of lives, and, at the very least, prolonged the conflict, significantly delaying the old president’s fall. The chant that reverberated around Egypt’s squares in the early days of the post-Mubarak era, as euphoric Egyptians jumped atop tanks and embraced soldiers, was “The people and the army are one hand”. The army had a claim in the revolution’s inheritance. This was not only the people’s revolution, but its revolution too. But as weeks and months have elapsed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the army does not only perceive itself as a partner in the revolution, but as its representative, guardian, and the sole bearer of its legitimacy.

The honeymoon between the military and the protesters did not last long. Tahrir Square, which had been the scene of wild celebrations, soon turned into a battlefield, as the army moved to violently disperse activists, beating them with clubs and electric rods – even firing live ammunition – leading to many casualties. Hundreds were dragged away to trucks and thrown in jail. Between January 28 and August 29, 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 cases involving beatings, electrocution, and sexual assault reported.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appears to be managing the transitional period according to its disciplinary military logic. Days after assuming power, it 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 for those who defied the ban. The army has since gone further, introducing a ban on public protest and curfews altogether. This seems to have only strengthened activists’ resolve as the frequent sit ins and vast demonstrations held in Tahrir Square testify.

State of emergency vs democracy?

Recently, exploiting the climate of tension heightened by protesters’ storming of the Israeli embassy, the army has reactivated the state of emergency, announcing that it will remain in force until June of next year, dashing popular demands for a swift end to the draconian code, which formed the constitutional underpinning of Mubarak’s dictatorship, serving as his chief means of stifling dissent since 1981. In an indication of the widening rift between the judiciary and the army, Tariq al-Bishri, a respected public intellectual and judge, who chaired the committee for the revision of the constitution, has responded by declaring martial law invalid as of September 20, 2011, as article 59 of the March 19, 2011, constitutional referendum stipulates.

If the state of emergency is one focal point of mounting political discontent, the elections are another. Having pledged to hold the elections this September, the SCAF has recently announced that they would instead be held in November, with no guarantee that the new date would be adhered to. The new, 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. Critics insist the latter option is designed to enable remnants of the ousted regime to sneak back to power using money and tribalism. Such fears have been intensified by the enlarging of electoral districts’ sizes, making it difficult for people to vote and for candidates to organise election campaigns over huge areas and in different places with no geographical relation between them. The North Cairo district, for example, includes no fewer than five million citizens.

What is at stake for the army and what forms the backdrop for all its decisions over the past eight months is a concern over its position and role in the political system currently under construction. The generals realise that there can be no return to the 1952 scenario, when the “Free Officers” seized power and controlled the political arena for more than two decades. But they seem unwilling to retreat to their barricades without securing the upper hand in matters pertaining to internal and foreign policy alike. It is not the day to day running of the country that the army is interested in. It is keeping the state’s central nerves in its tight grip: strategic decisions, budgetary distribution, and – above all – ensuring that all that relates to the military institution is kept away from public scrutiny. That is the reason why the army has moved to lay down ground rules, or “declaration of basic principles”, over and above the constitution and parliament, which would grant it sweeping authority and enable it to intercede in civilian politics, circumscribing the power of future elected officials.

In a telling statement, Major General Mamdouh Shaheen, a council member, offered a glimpse into the military’s mind, when he 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.” Ironically, this is the same worn out justification that has been incessantly churned out by Arab dictators to legitimise despotism and repression for decades. And, incidentally, what this top officer intends by the “Turkish model” is not its latest version, but the pre-AKP model that crippled political life in the country from the end of World War I to the early 2000s. The General’s statements made to the Washington Post may be greeted warmly in London, Washington, Paris, or Tel Aviv, anxious to prevent any meaningful change from taking place. Whether in suits or in 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 obstructers of genuine reform lies the tragic plight of democracy and democrats in Arab lands.

Soumaya Ghannoushi is a writer and researcher specialising in the Middle East and North Africa. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper and her articles have appeared in leading British and Arabic newspapers, including the Independent and Al-Quds al-Arabi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.