x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Egyptian generals are not eager to relinquish power

Egypt's generals pledge to tighten their hold on power after the deadly sectarian violence last Sunday.

CAIRO // The words of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi were more threatening than reassuring.

"We will not abandon Egypt before we finish what we pledged to do and committed ourselves to before the people," the country's military ruler said last week.

Eight months after the military generals took over from Hosni Mubarak, their initial promise to hand over power in six months has been all but forgotten. The nearest thing to a handover timetable extends their rule to the end of next year. Furthermore, they have pledged to tighten their hold on power following deadly sectarian violence on Sunday.

Is history repeating itself in Egypt?

The army officers who seized power in Egypt in 1952 vowed from the outset that they would step down and hand over the reins of power to a civilian administration. Two years later, Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the "free officers" who staged the coup, became the country's first president. Nearly 60 years later, the military is still in power, with every one of the country's four presidents since 1952 hailing from a military background.

Apart from his public comments, there is no evidence suggesting Field Marshal Tantawi has what it takes to break with a time-honoured tradition that has enabled the military to be the country's dominant force, capturing the best jobs, being spared public scrutiny and winning lucrative business contracts from the state.

But the Egypt of the 1950s is not the Egypt of today. The military appears, at least in some ways, to be losing the aura of invincibility it had enjoyed for decades and many Egyptians now are prepared to risk criticism of authorities in public.

They do not shy away from chanting slogans against the military and calling for Field Marshal Tantawi to step down. They take more liberties on the internet's social networks, sometimes using abusive language to criticise the generals.

The military's excessive use of force against protesters, torture of detainees and mishandling of the transition period have further chipped away at its prestige.

Video footage showing armoured army vehicles ploughing into crowds of Christian protesters on Sunday night has hurt the military's image and showed the army to be no less brutal than Mr Mubarak's hated police. The military ordered the cabinet to investigate the violence, which left 26 dead and hundreds wounded, but that appeared more of an attempt at dodging blame than a sincere effort at finding out what really happened.

The military initially ordered the cabinet to investigate the violence, which left 26 dead and hundreds wounded, but on Thursday it said it would instead probe the incident, leading rights activists to suspect a possible cover-up.

And in a series of logic defying denials delivered on live television a day earlier, generals from the ruling military council blamed Christian protesters and "enemies of the revolution" for triggering the clashes but offered nothing that could pass for a convincing explanation of forensic reports that showed a third of the 26 victims were killed by being run over by armored vehicles, while two-thirds were shot with live ammunition.

But the biggest question is whether the military plans to hand over power to a civilian government or crush opposition and hold on to power under the pretext of protecting the nation.

When he spoke to reporters last week, Field Marshal Tantawi, Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years, did not explain what he meant when he said the military would only step down when it finished what it had pledged to do. Nor did he set a time limit for honouring those pledges. The military rulers, however, have on occasion spoken about handing over power to an elected government, fighting corruption and bringing to justice figures of Mr Mubarak's autocratic regime.

Field Marshal Tantawi also said the military had no interest in staying in power for a long time and that, "given the chance", he and the military council he chairs would step down "tomorrow". Furthermore, he says the military had no intention to put forward one of its own for the country's top job.

This is not reassuring for many Egyptians. The benefits that could be gained by the military from staying in power are obvious given what has happened over the past 60 years. Besides, no one really expects the military to back a general in active service to contest the next presidential election. A civilian of military background would do just fine since he would have enough military in him to maintain the stranglehold the generals have had on the country, as well as protecting their privileges.

Alternately, the military can maintain their "special place" by enshrining a "guardian" role for the generals in the country's next constitution, giving them the final word on all major issues.

The military's domination of post-Mubarak Egypt has been helped by divisions among the youth groups that engineered the 18-day uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak. Most of them have refused to deal directly with the military, which left the generals no choice but to talk to old-guard politicians and leaders of new groups that have a limited popular base.

The generals have clearly benefitted from the vacuum. They have done a quick revision of recent history, overstating their role in the uprising.For months, they said their decision not to fire on protesters when they were called out to the streets on January 28 protected the millions of demonstrators. But Field Marshal Tantawi said this week that no one had given the military orders to fire on protesters anyway, an acknowledgement that takes much away from the military's claim that it has protected the revolution.

In fact, many of the protesters complain that the soldiers deployed in Cairo's Tahrir Square stood by as Mubarak supporters pelted them with rocks, firebombs and sniper fire from rooftops. On February 2, they recall, the soldiers also stood by as Mubarak supporters armed with swords and whips on horses and camels charged the crowds at Tahrir.