During the January 25 Egyptian Revolution, the chant “the people and the army are one hand” was among the most overwhelmingly popular, especially when Mubarak resigned. At the time, the protesters saw the army as saving the Revolution. Nine months later, however, as the demonstrators have again amassed again in Tahrir, their chants depict the army as the saboteur, and not the savior, of the Revolution. This second article in our three-part series about the political and social forces at play in Egypt will seek to understand this change, as well as the reasons for this “second” revolution, by looking at role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), both before and after the Revolution.[i]
Before the Revolution
Since the 1952 Revolution, the army has been the backbone of the Egyptian regime, although its political role has gone through several phases. With his rise to power in 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser based his legitimacy on developing the army’s political role, a strategy intended to redeem Egypt’s national pride and regional influence after its defeat by Israel in 1948. Arms deals with the Soviet Union were made and factories geared toward military production began to flourish. On the eve of the 1967 War, the Egyptian army controlled nearly all aspects of the country’s political and economic governance systems. Army officers had become part of the country’s social elite.
After 1967, the army’s special status began to diminish and its visibility within the Egyptian government also declined. Although the army redeemed itself during the 1973 War, it continued to withdraw publicly, a trend that persisted during Hosny Mubarak’s regime. Nevertheless, the contours of the army’s power over the last thirty-years has remained evident. In essence, the military has become a self-sufficient, autonomous enterprise influencing political, economic, and social aspects of Egyptian life. It has enjoyed economic privileges ranging from strategic land grants to monopolistic activities under the auspices of security interests. The army’s economics-oriented approach to national security has burgeoned over the past several decades, a circumstance heightened by the 1.3 billion dollars in military aid from the United States. The military’s economic holdings range from food, cement, gasoline and water industries to hotels and resorts. The military also has exclusive control over military production. Some estimates suggest that the army’s assets account for about 40% of the Egyptian economy. While prominent businessmen have come to dominate the Egyptian government over the past decade, the military has retained an unofficial veto over any policies or practices that are out of line with its interests.
As these circumstances demonstrate, the military’s power is both far-reaching and unchecked. With no legislative oversight, the army retains absolute control over its budget, spending and assets. It is because of its connections to Mubarak, who personally appointed all SCAF members, that the army has enjoyed these benefits. The Egyptian military elite, which includes SCAF and other influential figures, are the primary beneficiaries of these privileges.
After the Revolution
Against this background, SCAF’s interests and decision-making after the Revolution become clear. According to its own statements, SCAF does not wish to remain in power. This desire is likely sincere. SCAF is less interested in ruling the country and more interested in maintaining its interests and power through a complicit and pliant civilian government.
The political forces and figures that SCAF involved in the governing and decision-making process consisted of opposition forces that were not representative of the Revolution’s youth. Moreover, vver the last nine months, SCAF’s superficial reforms, which barely alter the status quo, have disgruntled activists and political forces. In fact, most of SCAF’s reforms, policies and timelines for change have been established in reaction to mass protests and demands. For example, it was not until the events of November 19th that the SCAF banned former NDP members for running for parliament. The resignation of Ahmed Shafiq, the arraignment of Mubarak and his family, the release of activists tried by military tribunals were all concessions made after or ahead of major protests.
As the protestors’ demands increased, SCAF became increasingly intransigent. The stand-off between protestors and SCAF reached a head in July, when April 6th and other youth movements organized the July 8th occupation of Tahrir under the banner, “The Revolution First.” Among their demands, demonstrators called for an end to military tribunals for civilian activists. In response, Lieutenant General Fangary, who had come out on February 11th to salute the Revolution’s martyrs and its youth, chastised those trying to test the military’s patience. The SCAF even went so far as to accuse April 6th of acting in the interest of foreign agendas.
Despite SCAF’s lackluster performance, prior to the November protests, demonstrators did not publicly oppose SCAF or ask it to hand over power immediately. This was largely a result of concerns that, without the military’s support, the country would sink into chaos during the transitionary period. Divisions among the opposition also prevented demonstrators from mounting a challenge to SCAF’s power. After Mubarak’s resignation, various political groups, which had been active during the Mubarak regime, quickly moved to capitalize on the power vacuum. For example, in order to prevent new political groups from threatening its power, the Muslim Brotherhood pushed for parliamentary elections before the establishment of a new constitution. Hoping to have more time to organize before elections and to have a greater voice in crafting the constitution, the new political parties and liberal groups pushed for the constitution first. Further reflecting the split between the different opposition groups, demonstrations that have taken place during the post-revolutionary have been markedly ‘Islamic’ or markedly ‘liberal.’
The November Protests
All this changed on November 19th. The main concern driving the demonstrations was SCAF’s recently proposed ‘super-constitutional statutes,’ known as the Selmy Document, which prohibits the civilian government from interfering or auditing the army’s budget. This, combined with frustrations regarding the impending November 28 parliamentary elections and distrust with SCAF’s handling of the post-revolutionary period, ignited the protests. State-owned television’s visibly skewed representation of events spurred more indignation. While the uprising began haphazardly, its momentum grew as images emerged of Central Security Forces and Military Police beating protestors and dragging their dead bodies next to the garbage. For many Egyptians, these images were all too similar to those from the January 25 Revolution.
What is currently underway in Tahrir is unlike any of the protests or clashes that have taken place since the Revolution. It is, first and foremost, depoliticized. From the start, protestors have prohibited Party-specific banners and have not allowed podiums for any party leaders. Like the Revolution of January 25th, this is a popular mass-mobilization composed of individuals from different generations and social backgrounds. The demonstrators’ demands are not sectarian, and center around protecting the Revolution and removing the remnants of the Mubarak regime. Protesters have demanded that SCAF step down and that the military return to the barracks. They have asked for the establishment of a National Salvation government with a clear schedule for the transfer of power.
While these demands are all valid, it is also imperative that any transfer of power to a civilian government does not revert to the pre-Revolution dynamic between the military and the government. More important than the establishment of a civilian government, the military’s role in the country must be changed. Without this, any civilian government will be ineffective. The first step towards achieving this is to prevent the enactment of the Selmy Document. The army’s use of domestic resources and assets be tied to national security, and not business, concerns. SCAF’s members should also be investigated and tried for their complicity in the killing of protesters.
With the recent re-appointment of one of Hosny Mubarak’s former Prime Ministers, Kamal Ganzouri, prospects for change in SCAF’s policies look grim. As Egypt braces itself for parliamentary elections and the drafting of a new constitution much is still uncertain. However, the displays of political awareness and mobilization that Egypt has witnessed these past days have proven that the Egyptian people do not take their Revolution lightly. Some opposing voices in the media have complained that those in Tahrir do not represent all of Egypt, and that there is a large “silent” majority for which Tahrir cannot. While it is true that those protesting in Tahrir and other parts of Egypt may not represent the entire population, it is also true, as Rosa Luxemborg once said, “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”