x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A revolution rolls on, leaving Egypt's old guard irrelevant

Egyptians' relationship with their army has changed this year, and not for the better. Now it is time for the soldiers to fade away from political life.

Kamal El Ganzouri, the 78-year old prime minister of Egypt, was still a young man when one of America's greatest war-time soldiers gave his farewell speech before the US Congress. "I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads ... which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die, they just fade away," intoned General Douglas MacArthur as he departed public life.

The year after Gen MacArthur spoke, Egypt was in revolt. One of the most important years in Egyptian history, 1952, saw the overthrow of the monarchy and the beginning of the modern Egyptian republic. Since then, the army has played an essential part in Egyptian society: a member of the military has been president ever since.

The year 2011 is shaping up to be another vital moment in the history of modern Egypt. The largest democratic election in the Arab world is now underway, set against a backdrop of some of the most serious unrest the country has seen since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The protests against military rule are continuing - today is the 10th day that demonstrators have occupied Tahrir Square in opposition to the polls - but the army generals have made clear that they expect the start of the election this week, and the timetable to presidential elections in the spring, to go ahead.

That, they say, is the only way to guarantee stability.

That may have been true 11 days ago. But the latest round of protests against the army has changed the political calculus of a nation still searching for its footing. Rather than guarantors of stability, the army command is now seen as a continuation of the past. Since they have lost the support of the people, the time has now come for Egypt's aging generals to fade away.

The Arab Spring is now entering its second phase. With the old regime toppled, elections have taken place in Tunisia, and more will be coming soon in Libya and Yemen. What should happen now in those countries is not more days of protests and revolution, but a long road of politics and coalitions and constitutional rewriting. Historic days, but hardly headlines.

In Egypt, there are still protests. This vote, part of a cycle of parliamentary elections that will elect a lower and upper house by March, has been boycotted by several parties in the wake of protests. The men and women on the streets of Cairo feel that military rule - which will continue for at least another year, while a new constitution is written - should end now.

The trouble is, in these messy, complicated times in Egypt, the old soldiers just don't get it. Egypt's prime minister is 78. The head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (SCAF), the de facto leader of the country, is 76. What can they say to the young men and women who are once again occupying Tahrir Square?

Nor is age the only barrier. The SCAF does not understand that the revolution wasn't about one man, but about a system.

In the months since Mr Mubarak was forced out and the military command took over, SCAF has not reflected what might be called the "spirit" of the revolution. It is true that the millions who toppled the ousted president want change, but not merely cosmetic change. They want a genuine change to the system. SCAF's use of military tribunals against civilian protestors, and the continuation of the emergency laws that served Mr Mubarak so well for decades, suggest the generals don't appreciate the depth of the change demanded.

Egypt's revolution is still on-going - this is the way of all politics - but too many have died facing the bullets of the police and the army for business as usual to continue.

Before this latest round of violence, the army could probably have held on beyond the elections with the support of the country. Its role in protecting civilians during the uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak earned it considerable goodwill among the population. Now that must be in doubt. The longer the Supreme Council stays in power, the worse will be its legacy to the Egyptian army.

The military has been part of the fabric of Egyptian society for decades - and has been part of the ruling elite of the country since the overthrow of the monarchy.

Doubly important than that, as an institution that the youth protesters looked to for protection in the early days of the revolution, the army must remain on the side of the people, in spirit if not in letter.

If SCAF cannot do that, it should move out of the way, for the sake of the country.

It is true - as the generals have said - that Egypt is not Tahrir Square alone. And all of Egypt is not necessarily represented in that square: many will see the election of Islamist parties as a better reflection of their political opinions.

But the time of the generals appears to be coming to an end. SCAF should recognise this and, when a new parliament has been elected in March, should cede power to a civilian government and have it lead the transition towards a new constitution and presidential elections. Then, like the old soldiers of the ballad, having done their duty to the country, they should fade away.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

Follow him on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai