Is Egypt's Military Turning Against the Revolution?

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The army helped to oust Mubarak, but has since adopted some of his uglier tactics

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CAIRO, Egypt -- The bands of thugs that had roamed these streets barely three weeks earlier were only a memory on Friday, replaced by roving face-painters, souvenir salesmen, and food vendors. Tahrir Square had become a patriotic carnival, with parents bringing their children for flag-waving Kodak moments, nationalist chants, and cotton candy. Twenty- and thirty-somethings strolled about in "January 25th" t-shirts while the older folks stood in circles debating the country's future. These public political parleys are still novelties, and the people of Tahrir Square were reveling in them.

"In forty years of political activism, I never sat next to Muslim Brothers, except here," said Hany Enan, a founder of the left-wing Kefaya opposition movement, in awe. "I'm a secularist, and I used to hate them."

But Friday night brought the stark reminder that Egypt's revolt is not yet a revolution. After midnight and without warning, masked military police officers attacked a group of protesters who had gathered peacefully outside the People's Assembly, just three blocks south of Tahrir Square. A high-ranking officer reportedly ordered his subordinates to surround the protesters, whom the military police attacked with Tasers and the blunt ends of their weapons.

"I was there because I trusted that the army would not violate its responsibilities," said Khaled Haall, a programming engineer who has been active in the demonstrations. "Because of this, I have lost my faith in the army."

Until now, the military has been lauded as a hero of the public uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak's rule. "Al-shaab wa'al-gaysh eed wahdah" -- "the people and the army are one hand" -- was a common refrain during the demonstrations, and many protesters recognize that internal military pressure ultimately forced Mubarak's resignation.

But since taking control of Egypt on February 11, the Supreme Military Council has emphasized its desire to return things to a state of normalcy for the sake of the country and the economy. The regular demonstrations that continue to cut off -- if not shut down -- major urban thoroughfares do not fit with that plan.

To avoid direct confrontation with protesters, the military has taken a page from Mubarak's playbook and used the state-run media, which it now controls, to appeal to the broader Egyptian public. On Saturday morning, two state-run channels set up cameras along the Nile Corniche, where soldiers arranged individuals to complain about the country's troubles and request the government's intervention. On Channel 2, a man discussed the economic consequences of plummeting tourism, while another asked for the return of the police. On Channel 3, a blind man was filmed asking for services, saying that he needed a job and a home. Just off camera, four large tanks closed the road to traffic, and soldiers brandishing AK-47s lined the street next to the supposedly defunct Ministry of Information. There would be no interference with this carefully crafted media campaign and, after asking the cameramen too many questions, a soldier led me away.

Yet this effort has so far failed to clear Tahrir Square. While the crowds are only a tiny fraction of what they were during the height of the protests, leading opposition groups still insist that their demands have not been met. They note that Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and much of his cabinet are Mubarak appointees, insisting on their resignation. They now add that they want former regime figures to face prosecution and for the remaining political prisoners to be released.

But the Supreme Military Council has shown no sign that it will submit to these demands. As a result, it finds itself at odds with the remaining protesters, who believe that ongoing demonstrations are their only means for keeping pressure on the regime to achieve a more democratic future. And despite the army's public apology for Friday night's attacks, many protesters believe that the violence will continue.

"The army's attitude is the same as State Security's and the police's," said Layla Sueif, a Cairo University professor who was at the protests when the military police attacked. "The army does not aim to follow the will of the people."

Still, even as protesters hinted that they would hold a bigger demonstration on Friday to "protect the revolution," they face a seemingly indomitable opponent in the military. Unlike Mubarak, the military is hard to vilify, and protesters know that they lack the political capital to mobilize against it.

"It's about respect," said leading activist Moshira Mohasseb. "Our most important festival is October 6th, when we appreciate the army's action during the [1973] war. When people respect the army, it means we have a great nation."

For this reason, Egypt's popular revolt has quickly come to resemble a narrowly defined stalemate, though most Egyptians are probably too busy celebrating Mubarak's departure to notice.


Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty
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Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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