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Egypt's new Facebook military tries to keep a friendly image

Egypt's military moves fast to give up political power before it loses credibility with the people who have momentarily forgotten that the generals were all beneficiaries of Mubarak's regime.

Ever since it issued its "communique number one" at 5pm on February 10, just a day before Hosni Mubarak was banished to internal exile in Sharm el Sheikh, the Egyptian military has put on the airs of a reluctant leader. The question on everyone's mind is whether this is in act, and whether the military intends to play a dominant role in political life, much as it did half a century ago.

At the core of the Egyptian regime since the 1952 Free Officers' coup, the military is a deeply entrenched institution and the most prestigious in the country - and, because it controls the heaviest firepower, ultimately the strongest part of the state. In the last three decades under Mr Mubarak, after the Camp David peace treaty with Israel removed its most important function, it had played a gradually diminished role in public life.

Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, half the cabinet might have been comprised of generals, but under Mr Mubarak only a handful of ministers were from the military. Under Nasser and Sadat, senior officials such as the chief of staff of the armed forces were household names; under Mr Mubarak, they were mostly unknown to the general public. Now, the 20 members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are well known; some particularly popular members even have their Facebook fan clubs.

The Supreme Council that now runs Egypt has assured the public that it has no desire to remain permanently in charge, and has made a show of consulting with both the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square and the more established political forces. It has moved from making announcements through very martial communiques to, in what must be a first for any military coup, communicating through a Facebook page. Its members have appeared on television talk shows, accepting questions and criticism from interviewers, and displaying a willingness to listen.

To show its desire to return to the barracks and leave the business of running the country to civilians, the Supreme Council has imposed a six-month deadline for transition. It has shown it is serious about moving fast - too fast for some - by quickly setting up a committee to review the constitution and holding a referendum on proposed changes as early as this Saturday, just five weeks after Mr Mubarak's departure. Parliamentary and presidential elections could follow as soon as June and August, respectively.

Many of Egypt's democrats are unhappy with this pace, which they argue leaves too little time for new parties to emerge and will mostly benefit members of the old ruling party and other well-established political forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They are also unhappy with some of the proposed constitutional amendments, notably provisions that require that both parents and spouses of presidential candidates only hold Egyptian nationality.

Why is the military in such a hurry? In part because it is not accustomed to governing directly - and the accountability that comes with it. Egypt's problems were not resolved overnight after the fall of Mr Mubarak, and the Supreme Council finds itself having to deal with 84 million Egyptians who are demanding more than ever from their rulers: justice for the victims of the former regime, more socio-economic equality, and that the endemic corruption that was probably the Mubarak regime's downfall be dealt with swiftly and effectively. And they have been given a new lease of courage in making these demands, inspired by the example of the activists that held Tahrir Square for 18 days.

The military cannot meet some of these demands immediately. Dealing with hundreds of separate strikes taking place across the country - for better pay and often the removal of corrupt management tied to the former regime - will obviously take time. Moreover, eager to return order and normality to Egypt's streets, the military has tried (without much success) to ban strikes, a move that will only discredit it as it will either be forced to allow them to continue or, as it has done in the past, use violence against strikers. The more time passes, the more the generals find themselves faced with having to make unpopular decisions. For their own reputation, they prefer to have ministers take the blame.

Another reason the military is moving so fast is that, for the duration of the transition period at least, it will have to carry out some policing - particularly since the real police force, which collapsed on January 28, is only slowly returning to the streets and garners no respect from most Egyptians. This means that the military is the entity in charge of dealing with ongoing protests, including ones it opposes such as the continuation of the occupation of Tahrir Square. Last week, the army moved in to forcibly dismantle the encampment on the square, using the pretext of a counter-protest against the Tahrir crowd. The images that ensued, showing soldiers ripping tents, run counter to the dominant narrative in place since tanks deployed on Cairo's streets, encapsulated by the popular slogan: "The people, the army, one hand!"

More recently, reports by human rights groups that the army has tortured activists it detains - notably in an interrogation room set up near the square at the Egyptian Museum - have surfaced. Videos of activists retelling their ordeal at the hands of military police have circulated, resulting in an important shift of atmospherics. While still popular with the public at large, the military is beginning to lose the respect of the revolution's vanguard.

These are compelling motives for the generals to move fast to hand over running affairs to a legitimately elected civilian government. But the terms of the military's relationship with that government are still unknown. Some "red lines", notably over foreign and security policy, will probably be in place - it is unlikely the military would allow a government to renege on the Camp David agreement, for instance. It will also be prickly about protecting its interests, notably the tax-free enterprises it runs and the lavish welfare bestowed on officers.

Even more tricky is whether the accountability for past crimes that so many Egyptians are demanding will extend to the generals who benefited from 30 years of Mubarakism. Thus far, the public has glossed over the fact that those leading the Supreme Council were pillars of the Mubarak regime. This selective amnesia could become part of the bargain that defines Egypt's new republic: a military that is happy to remain in the barracks, but protective of its privileged status.

Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net

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