How will the realisation that the military could be the revolution's chief obstacle, rather than an ally, impact Egypt's future?
The magnificent Egyptian uprising, after a brief introspective but impatient pause, has flared up again. On February 11, it brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak and drove him into peripheral existence in Sharm-el-Sheikh, the resort city on the Red Sea. Yet, even when the euphoria generated by the exit of the oligarch was in full flow, many among Egypt's seasoned protesters observed, “We have brought down the dictator, not the dictatorship.”
By April 9, less than two months after Mr. Mubarak's unceremonious exit, the uprising gathered its second wind. With clarity and focus, it declared war on the remnants of the regime, which had remained largely unmoved from institutions and had, for three servile decades, served Mr. Mubarak unquestioningly. More significantly, the protesters' perception of the military top brass, who had taken over the state after Mr. Mubarak's ungainly departure, changed dramatically. It began to dawn on them that the military was not people's friend. It was as much part of the old oligarchy, which was yet to make way for people's power.
The Egyptian media have been quick to pick up the military's fading appeal. An article in Al Ahram Online observed: “The army's advent to Egypt's streets in the early days of the revolution was welcomed by the people who met the officers and soldiers with flowers and the chant ‘the army and the people are one hand.' But as tensions cloud the relationship between the two sides, the optimistic chant is becoming increasingly rare.”
What has changed in a couple of months? How will the realisation that the military could be the revolution's chief obstacle, rather than being an ally, impact Egypt's future?
The reluctance to put Mr. Mubarak, his family and inner-circle cronies on trial first sowed the suspicion that the new military rulers were protecting prominent members of the entrenched elite. Besides, many top activists of the Egyptian youth movement, which spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolt, began to conclude, after their interaction with the new rulers, that the military leadership might no longer be sensitive to the aspirations of the uprising.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ahmed Maher, a top leader of the April 6 youth movement, conveyed the impression that the relationship with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's top decision making body, was souring fast. He pointed out that the meetings between youth representatives and Generals Mohsen al-Fingare and Mohd. Higazi had become infrequent. “The present situation is ambiguous, nobody knows what they [the military] are thinking,” he said. “We respect the army, there's no doubt about that, [but] nothing will be imposed on us … without being thoroughly discussed with us.”
The military's image has also taken a beating following its recent moves to target individual protesters, and hand down heavy sentences to them in shadowy closed-door trials. Among those who have suffered from the army's proclivity for handing summary justice is Michael Nabil, a prominent blogger, who is undergoing a three-year sentence.
The military's inclination to violate human rights has made it hard for people to differentiate its behaviour from the darkness of the Mubarak era. Besides, its recent move to ban labour strikes and demonstrations is turning out to be disastrous. It has alienated the working class, whose widespread participation in industrial action during the first phase of the uprising proved decisive in toppling Mr. Mubarak.
It was, therefore, not surprising when hundreds of thousands of people assembled at the Tahrir Square on April 8, demanding from the army the liberation of public institutions from the influence of Mr. Mubarak's nepotistic cliques. For the first time after Mr. Mubarak's exit, the crowds attacked Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tanatawi, a former Mubarak ally and now SCAF head. From a stage at the Tahrir Square, one of the speakers chanted: “Oh, Field Marshal, why are you quiet? Are you with them?” Yet another ominously shouted: “Dictator, dictator, Tanatawi is next.”
By first light on April 9, the Field Marshal became a popular hate figure. This was because the army, under cover of darkness, ordered a brutal crackdown on the few protesters who chose to stay overnight, after the bulk of the dissidents had departed. Those who did not leave wanted to protect a dozen army officers, fearing retribution from their high command because they had switched sides and joined the protests at the Tahrir Square. Before daybreak, the troops arrived in strength and the crackdown began.
Amateur video showed the security forces surrounding most parts of the square, aglow with street lamps. Then, for several minutes, the crackle of gunfire could be heard as the protesters battled a hail of rubber bullets and teargas shells. Finally, the protest was broken; a number of army dissidents were arrested and at least one person later died of injuries in a Cairo hospital.
The military's imprudent attack has re-ignited the uprising. The Tahrir Square has once again come alive, and protests are acquiring new political dimensions. Hossam el-Hamalawy, socialist journalist and activist, said on Twitter that many Palestine flags could be seen at the square where protesters have pledged not to leave until those responsible for the April 9 crackdown are put on trial.
The military's counterproductive recourse to violence is the result of its gross underestimation of the depth of the revolt, and its aversion to the plutocratic elite. At the heart of the uprising is a supercharged working class movement, which has made itself felt since 2006, when workers went on strike at a textile mill — the largest in West Asia — in the Nile delta town of Mahalla. The strike inspired similar industrial action in other parts of the country. Mahalla again came into the limelight in 2008, when three persons were killed after police tried to quell a mini-uprising, triggered by a sharp rise in bread price. The Mahalla incident triggered a similar revolt in El-Borollos, north of the Nile delta. In an article in The Guardian, Mr. Hamalawy points out that “the country continued to witness almost on a daily basis strikes and sit-ins by workers, and smaller demonstrations by activists in downtown Cairo and the provinces.” It was in 2008 that the youth movement formally embedded itself in the working class agitators, after Ahmed Maher, leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, took the lead in supporting the textile workers.
The military is unlikely to have understood that the Egyptian uprising is the result of a complex enmeshing of social groups, mobilised by the April 6 Youth Movement and the We are All Khaled Said group, which has stood up against police brutality. The youth mobilisation fused into a vibrant working class movement. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood later joined the movement, which, in the words of Pepe Escobar, combines “pro-labour Islamists, leftists, liberals, and left-wing nationalists.” This critical mass, with a working class core, aspiring as much for food and clothing as for dignity, is unlikely to be satisfied by driblets of reform offered by the military or deterred by its scaremongering tactics.
Many in Egypt have begun to realise that the military, despite its size and sophisticated weaponry, is inherently fragile. The presence of the dozen officers at the Tahrir Square on April 8 was an indication that the protesters are likely to enjoy a great deal of empathy within the rank and file of the army. It is commonly felt among pro-democracy activists that the military has suffered a “horizontal split”— the junior officer corps and ordinary soldiers facing off with the top brass, who view the uprising as a serious threat. Thus SCAF is unlikely to deepen its crackdown, as pervasive use of force against the protesters can seriously threaten the institutional cohesiveness of a deeply divided military.
There is a view that driven to desperation, the military could seriously pursue “divide and rule” tactics by making a determined attempt to co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood and shear it away from the uprising. But given the high momentum of the revolt, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood will become the military's partner as the move could terminally impair its credibility among ordinary Egyptians.
Amid an irreconcilable contradiction between the entrenched interests of the military, which also has struck economic root, and the aspirations of the mainstream protest movement, Egypt is likely to pursue an unscripted course of transition, which may no longer be orderly or free of violence.