The Egyptian Army, No Friend of the People

Christopher Haynes argues that the military’s actions in recent days prove that it’s not on the side of the revolution.

The Egyptian army showed its true colors this week. On the first day of Ramadan, a day of celebration and peace if ever there was one, the army cleared Tahrir Square of the tent city that had controlled it since July 8 and arrested some of its occupants. This overt use of force against the revolution should persuade the people that the army is not their friend.

Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February under somewhat mysterious circumstances. After claiming that he would remain in power the night before, the veteran Egyptian president quickly disappeared to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces stepped in. It is possible that the army persuaded him to leave and equally possible that the power elites had planned this move to make the new government popular.

The army has paid lip service to the demands of the protesters but done little to satisfy them.

First, the families of the martyrs of the revolution, many of them camped out in Tahrir, have not seen justice. They are demanding restitution and getting the strong arm instead.

Second, as many as 20,000 of the peaceful revolutionaries jailed since the beginning of the uprising received trials lasting a few minutes and sentences lasting several years. The jailed youngster, including blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 26-year old sentenced to three years imprisonment for criticizing the military, usually have had no access to proper legal counsel.

The people have been calling desperately for their release but the military has not been forthcoming. “Egypt’s military leadership has not explained why young protesters are being tried before unfair military courts while former Mubarak officials are being tried for corruption and killing protesters before regular criminal courts,” said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch.

The generals’ reliance on military trials threatens the rule of law by creating a parallel system that undermines Egypt’s judiciary.

Instead of trying the peaceful and innocent, Egyptians expected trials of the police, the thugs and the ancien régime. The police were the repressive hand of the government while Mubarak was in power and have lost most of their power since the revolution. Police and Interior Ministry snipers are responsible for the deaths of many of the protesters killed in the early days of the revolution. The youth fought back and repelled the police but the government had other tricks up its long sleeve. During the eighteen day demonstrations that brought down Mubarak, the government released a number of thugs from prison to attack the people. They burst into Tahrir Square on the Day of the Camels, riding camels and horses into the area and wielding swords and sticks. After the police fled, the thugs went to every neighborhood to terrorize the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, the people banded together to protect themselves and their families.

The corrupt ministers of the old government, too, are perceived to have been protected since the fall of Mubarak. Demonstrators demanded a complete overhaul of the Interior Ministry and were given a reshuffle. The people want justice, which to them means the trial and sentencing of the police, the thugs and the thieves, and they want their money back. Thus far, they have not found it.

Fourth, the ever present Palestinian question was supposedly answered when Egypt’s government announced in May that it would open the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip, providing some relief to the Palestinians trapped in the territory. Both Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict blockade of Gaza since 2007 when Hamas took it over. Restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza have eased slightly but progress has been minimal. All the real demands of the protesters have gone unheeded.

The army will do its best to ensure that the privileged position beyond the control of civilian government that it has always maintained remains protected. For the past several months, volunteers have stood at every entrance to Tahrir Square, checking passports for anyone who might be a known thug. They were able to enter the square once or twice nonetheless, with violent results.

On Monday, the army seemed to usher them in with the soldiers. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that “military police, Central Security Forces and civilian supporters” destroyed the sit in that had characterized the heart of Cairo for weeks. Perhaps the paper did not want to editorialize but it is probable that the “civilian supporters” were the very thugs that have tried to wreck the revolution since the Day of the Camels.

At last count, the military and its supreme leader, General Mohamed Tantawi, enjoyed broad support among the Egyptian people. This move may sour the belief that the army is a friend of the revolution. Either way, Egyptians have no reason to continue to trust their government or end the demonstrations of the ongoing revolution.