x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Egypt's rulers send mixed signals

Egypt's ruling generals are sending signals and lack of clarity and decisiveness on some of the major issues facing Egypt are adding to the uncertainty over the future of the country.

CAIRO // Egypt's ruling generals are showing alarming signs of confusion and division in their ranks as they oversee the country's transition from the autocracy of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak to a semblance of democratic rule.

The mixed signals and lack of clarity and decisiveness on some of the major issues facing Egypt are adding to the uncertainty over the future of the country.

The protest movement is also troubled by the prominent role of former Mubarak loyalists in the military and recent measures that suggest a return to the iron fist.

Public paranoia surfaced last week when a military tribunal slapped a three-year prison sentence on a blogger on charges of insulting the army and spreading false information. The severity of the punishment reminded many of the Mubarak years when his police and state security agents detained and tortured anti-regime activists of all stripes.

The military sent soldiers backed by tanks to take charge of Cairo's protest-riven streets on January 28. By February 11, Mr Mubarak was out and the 20-plus generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had taken over control of the country.ven then, in the military's handling of the youth groups that orchestrated the protests in Tahrir Square, there was a hint of the unpredictability ahead and an example of the generals' inconsistency.

Military leaders said repeatedly that they were aware of the protesters' demands, that those demands were valid and that they would be addressed. They asked the protesters to leave Tahrir Square. The protesters did not comply, but the military did not respond.

However, it was only a matter of days after Mr Mubarak's overthrow that hundreds of Egyptians charged with offences ranging from violating the curfew to thuggery or theft found themselves convicted and handed long prison sentences by military tribunals that almost completely ignored due process of law.

Even so, the generals began their time in power on a positive note, promising to protect protesters and not to use force to break up demonstrations.

But on a number of recent occasions they have sent troops into Tahrir Square, storming protesters' encampments or breaking up protests.

In one such assault last week, soldiers, including paratroopers, swarmed the square before dawn, firing in the air and beating protesters with clubs. One protester died.

Often, such action has been followed by a public apology from the military or an implausible explanation to justify the soldiers' aggressive tactics.

The other area of inconsistency that is confusing both the protest movement and ordinary Egyptians is the military's behaviour towards the deposed president, Mr Mubarak, his immediate family and the remnants of the corrupt regime he left behind.

The generals repeatedly stated early in their rule that Mr Mubarak deserved to be treated with respect because he had served his country as a military officer, a war hero and a president who oversaw the return of Egyptian territory occupied by Israel. And, after all, he was one of their own.

The Supreme Council is led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who spent years as one of Mr Mubarak's most loyal protégés and was his defence minister for close to 20 years. A confidential US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described him as Mr Mubarak's lapdog. Indeed, Field Marshal Tantawi's close links to Mr Mubarak led to calls by protesters, last week, for his removal.

The generals did dismiss the government sworn in by Mr Mubarak in his final days in power, and they dissolved the infamous state security agency. But they resisted protesters' demands for sweeping measures to hold leaders of the former regime accountable for corruption and mismanagement and to weed out its remnants from public office.

Now, however, Mr Mubarak, his family and the pillars of his rule are under criminal investigation, detained or awaiting trial, and the 82-year-old former president faces possible imprisonment.

The generals have detained Mr Mubarak in hospital, where he is being treated for a heart ailment, have questioned his powerful wife Suzanne and have locked up his two sons Gamal and Alaa.

The entire family is facing corruption charges, but Mr Mubarak and Gamal, once his heir apparent, face the additional charge of murder in connection with the deaths of protesters.

The military has given no clear indication of whether it is simply pandering to youth protest groups or what approach it favours in dealing with the former regime.

For many years, the Egyptian military has been a conservative and secretive institution that sees itself as above civilians. It has been the ultimate source of power since officers ousted the monarchy in 1952. Egypt's four presidents since then have emerged from the military.

While nothing they have said or done thus far casts doubt on the generals' commitment to handing over power to a civilian government, they are widely seen to be running the country and mapping out its future without sufficient transparency or consultation.