Letter from Cairo: The Good, the Bad, and the Army
Is the army a loyal lover to the Egyptian people?
An introverted man who has hardly been in a relationship and a mortified woman who has been into several abusive relationships have a blind date in the middle of a hurricane and are expected to get to know each other and work on their and each others’ issues as well as conquer the circumstances that would hinder the possibility of their union in a healthy relationship that makes up for their turbulent pasts. That was how Egyptians and the army got to know each.
On October 6 of every year and for the past four decades, we would be bombarded with a series of patriotic films—the same ones every time—to commemorate the 1973 war in which the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal, restored the Sinai Peninsula, and defeated Israel. In those films, there is usually a love story and the protagonist—a soldier of course—is thought dead then suddenly comes back victorious and is united with his beloved in a “touching” scene that combines passionate longing with nationalistic zeal. Each of those movies would feature this protagonist and his comrades—usually his closest friend dies in his arms to show that war exacts a dear price even if it ends up in victory—crossing the canal in inflatable boats, pulling down the Bar Lev Line with water cannons, and finally raising the Egyptian flag on the usurped land. In the meantime, the lover/fiancée/wife would be glued to a radio that transmits blurred reports from the front and crying and praying and all the works. She might also volunteer to tend to the wounded in the hope of finding her man among them or meeting any of his friends—sometimes one of them would also be in love with her. Have you seen Pearl Harbor? Well, it’s more or less the same thing except that no one beats Ben Affleck’s ability to show no emotion whatsoever even if he is shot at, forced into the trenches, and captured by the formidable Samurai.
To cut a long story short, this was the only channel through which the Egyptian people had any contact—if it may be called so—with the army. It is true that the 1952 Revolution, which toppled the monarchy and established the Arab Republic of Egypt—which is what we are till now—was led by the Free Officers, which made it a military coup rather than a popular uprising, and all four presidents who had ruled ever since came from the army, yet Egypt did not really qualify as a military dictatorship. The despotic regime in Egypt was in no way similar to those of Latin America for example, where a military junta is the de facto ruler of the country and where it was the army that exercised absolute political control on both the domestic and the international levels. Since 1952, Egypt had had military rulers who made sure their authority was derived from their own individual power and not from their affiliation to the Armed Forces, most likely out of a sheer egoistic desire to have their star shine outside any collective entity that might overshadow their desire to remain the one and only symbol of the nation. If we have to give it a name, I would agree with analysts who regarded the system of government in Egypt as a personality cult dictatorship rather than a military rule.
Egyptians, therefore, never had the chance to have a proper interaction with the army and the only source of authority they dealt with on daily basis was the police, which in fact played the role of the junta as far as abuse of power, human rights violations, and suppression of personal freedoms are concerned. January 28, 2011, also called Friday of Fury, featured both the climax and the denouement of the decades-long saga of unmitigated brutality and ruthless repression, for whereas in the morning of that day, all police forces were mobilized like never before to crush the protests at any cost, by sunset not one single policeman was to be seen anywhere across the country. Yet, Egyptians were by no means able to celebrate the vanishing of one of their staunchest enemies because they were starting to realize that they were being “punished” for their “misconduct” and because at the time when cops were taking off their uniforms and heading back home for an “open vacation” as they were told by their superiors, prison cells were flung wide open one after the other and their inmates were given free rein in an abrupt shift from a Police State to a police-less combat zone.
It was then that the army made an appearance and it was also then that Egyptians started to feel they were not totally abandoned. Hence, the emotionally-charged reception of the soldiers who, being suddenly ejected from their barracks to a battlefield that does not in any way resemble the ones they are familiar with, were as baffled as the civilians, who without warning found themselves in the custody of the seemingly untouchable Herculeses they had only seen on screen and who came to rescue them from what appeared to be an inescapable Armageddon. That is why what would generally appear as a frightening spectacle, the country turning into a barrack, was a welcome relief and, believe it or not, a source of entertainment. For what I assume is unprecedented in history, people started mounting tanks and taking pictures with the soldiers and children seemed to confuse armored vehicles with Ferris wheels and donkey carts. Taking it for granted that the army is totally supporting them—therefore, overlooking the fact that the president is also head of the Armed Forces—protestors even felt free to write “Down with Mubarak” on those very same tanks and armored vehicles. And guess what? None of the soldiers intervened to stop this from happening. Chanting slogans that emphasized that the army and the people are “one” and “stand hand in hand” and so on not only revealed the people’s feeling towards their new saviors, but also served as an invitation for the army to quit its so-called “neutrality” and join the ranks of the revolutionaries. When this happened, the Armed Forces became the one and only national icon, in real life this time.
However, a blind date is a blind date and mishaps do happen, for the long time single man is not savy enough to deal with women and the relationship-weary woman has learned that every man is guilty until proven innocent. Despite the patriotism for which it was hailed when it chose to side with the revolution and aid in the toppling of the regime and despite the magnanimity its marshals displayed when they refused to fire at the peaceful protestors, the army has in many occasions been accused of several offences—complicity with the former regime, violent repression of post-revolution protests, and laxity in penalizing subversive groups being the most prominent examples.
Questioning the army’s loyalty to the people goes back to February 2, the day the bloody confrontations known as “The battle of the Camel” took place in Tahrir Square between the revolutionaries and mercenary thugs of the then-incumbent regime. On that day, the army was accused of its inability to protect the protestors—tanks tightly surrounded the square and it was literally impossible for men armed with knives, whips, and Molotov cocktails to enter on board camels and horses unless the army had made way for them—and of still pledging allegiance to Mubarak’s regime despite “pretending” to side with the people’s demand to topple it. This incident also gave rise to countless apprehensions as the striking revolutionaries wondered if they would one day be the victims of another Tiananmen Square.
Nothing less than the actual toppling of the regime, which took place nine days after the notorious battle, would have quelled the fears of Egyptian youths and it actually did. As the Higher Council of Armed Forces took over and amid talk that it was the army that “forced” Mubarak to resign, another honeymoon started and prospects of a love story were starting to emerge for the newly acquainted couple.
Had relationships been that easy, the words “break up” and “divorce” would not have entered our dictionary. While for a long time the “hand in hand” chants resonated across the country and another glory was added to the army’s honorable record, things started to look bleak again shortly afterwards. While complicity with the regime was no longer a valid accusation, suspicion over the possibility of a deal struck between the army and the Mubaraks started undermining the restored confidence as the progenitors of the revolution demanded a justification for not bringing the former ruling family to justice at the time when dozens of senior officials were being detained pending trial. Even though the arrest of the two sons contributed to clearing the skies a little bit, keeping Mubarak in a hospital for health reasons and releasing his wife after pledging to waive her wealth to the state raised more questions about some kind of immunity granted to the couple prior to the president’s resignation. The announcement in an independent newspaper that Mubarak intends to apologize to the people in return for amnesty added fuel to the fire, and the army was accused of playing games with the people to gauge their reactions and prepare them for the “forgiveness” scenario. The fact that the military council later dismissed the story as groundless did not pacify the public who believed that its members only did so after seeing the furious reaction with which they news was met.
The eruption of sectarian clashes in several parts of Egypt served to further discredit the army, which was forcefully reprimanded by Copts and Muslims alike for its inability to clampdown on those responsible for burning churches and attacking Christians. Activists belonging to both faiths believe that the army is being too soft on Salafi groups, the main suspects in the latest turmoil, not only for not arresting those of them involved in igniting the strife, but also for sending Salafi clerics to places where these incidents took place in order to “pacify” both parties. The contrast between what is seen as “incompetent” or almost “nonexistent” intervention in the Muslim-Christian clashes while they were taking place on one hand and the violent repression of protests staged in front of the Israeli embassy in commemoration of the Nakba on the other triggered strong statements about the army being selective as to when and where it should pull the iron grip card. Speculations have reached their peak as many observers charged the army of dealing with national crises upon its whims and even the personal ideologies of its leaders.
Meanwhile, the army responses are as ambivalent as their actions and as their relationship with the people. While this is understood by many as prevarication, many others see it as confusion. The best description I have read till now about the army’s demeanor—or misdemeanor—since it took charge of the country was one by Egyptian columnist Galal Nassar who summarized the army’s problem in not knowing the difference between “running” and “ruling” the country.
I am not sure if this argument acquits or implicates the army, but it makes sense in all cases. Having been totally detached from the political scene and not going anywhere outside the battlefield at times of war and the barracks at times of peace, they were suddenly required to play president in a country rife with conflicts and plagued by numerous plights, let alone just emerging from a revolution, and were expected to manage civil matters with the same efficiency with which they did military ones. Maybe that was quite a lot to ask, but you can’t blame the people for asking either, and while the army accuses the people of impatience—and sometimes ingratitude even though not in so many words—the people feel that the state—in whichever form it takes—owes them a great deal.
A vicious circle it is. The man expects the woman to bear with him as he gropes his way through a type of relationship in which he has minimal experience, and the woman requires that the man does all what is in his capacity to restore her trust in the male sex, and both think the other is too focused on his/her own needs. She might accuse him of not showing enough interest for a long time and he might accuse her of being too paranoid for pretty much the same time, and while this process of incrimination is going on, they also have to remember that both of them might be knocked down by the hurricane that seems to get more menacing by the minute. So, it’s either they make their priority to take shelter together in some safe place where they can have the clarity of mind to reflect on their situation or they can engage in endless bickering until they are buried under heaps of rubble. Their choice!
By Sonia Farid
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