x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Egypt's generals under fire as ominous rift opens between military and protesters

As military warns it would not tolerate any protests that 'harm national interests', hundreds of protesters staging a sit-in at Cairo's Tahrir Square since July 8 refused to budge.

The general wagged his finger threateningly. At times, he was yelling.

Major General Mohsen El Fangari, one of the 20 generals who have ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, was angry and impatient. It seemed he had just about had it with the nation's protesters, their demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes.

The military, he sternly warned, would not tolerate any protests that "harm national interests".

But General El Fangari's televised statement on July 12 backfired.

The hundreds of protesters staging a sit-in at Cairo's Tahrir Square since July 8 were clearly not intimidated. They refused to budge, and insisted they would not leave until all their demands were met.

His performance was ridiculed, both on the internet's social networks and by newspaper cartoonists. One cartoon published in the independent Al Shorouq daily showed a mother warning her naughty child that she would make him watch a recording of General El Fangari's statement if he did not behave.

The protesters behind the January-February uprising have long been suspicious of the generals who have taken over from Mr Mubarak, but recent weeks have seen them openly voice their distrust, or at least lack of confidence, in the way the generals are running the country. After all, many of them argue, the generals are an extension of the ousted regime, promoted and patronised by Mr Mubarak.

The sit-in at Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak's regime, is meant to press the military to speed up the trials of Mr Mubarak, his sons and stalwarts of the ousted regime as well as bring to justice police officers accused of killing nearly 900 protesters during the uprising.

But, more importantly, the protesters want the powers of the ruling military council to be curtailed and defined to give interim prime minister Essam Sharaf, a one-time darling of the protesters, more leeway in pursuing reform.

The Tahrir sit-in, though modest in size, has revived the square as the source of legitimate power in Egypt, thus posing a threat to the authority of the military at a time when the generals no longer inspire the respect they once commanded.

Chants against Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the ruling military council, are now common.

Just how much respect the military has lost in the past five months was on display on Saturday at Tahrir when another general, Tarek El Mahdi, was booed offstage when he tried to address the crowd. Some protesters even held up shoes, a sign of contempt in the Arab world.

General El Mahdi was in the square to try to persuade a group of protesters to call off their hunger strike, but he had to cut short his visit and left. Later, he told state television that he had failed in his "mission".

Protesters belittle the military's claim that its intervention on the side of the protesters saved he revolution from the brutality of Mr Mubarak's security forces, countering that troops stood by and watched as many of them were killed by security forces and thugs hired by regime-backed businessmen and senior members of Mr Mubarak's ruling party.

They accuse the generals of not adequately consulting with political forces on key issues of the transition to civilian rule, as well as human rights violations, such as torturing detainees, and trying thousands of civilians before military tribunals. Additionally, they charge that the military is not doing enough to restore security to the country five months after the uprising that forced Mr Mubarak to step down.

The protesters also accuse the generals of showing too much respect to Mr Mubarak and his family, not allowing the photographing and publishing of pictures of the former leader and his two sons while in detention and of allowing the former president to remain under police custody at a hospital in a Red Sea resort rather than in a Cairo jail.

The military, on its part, says protests were harming the country's interests and had to be stopped to allow the country to regain normality and for the economy to finally recover. It has promised to look into allegations of torture, but has yet to say what steps, if any, it would take to halt the practice against detainees.

Criticism of the generals and the growing rift between them and the protesters is ominous since it could leave the military openly and widely discredited, thus robbing the country of its traditional bastion of authority that, while not ideal or flawless, is needed to shepherd the nation back to stability.

But the protesters, or at least the hard-core among them, are increasingly irreverent and emboldened, drawing more and more heavily on their credentials as the architects and makers of a revolution that only six months ago was thought unthinkable.

At times, the military acts in ways that betray recognition of the power of the revolutionaries, caving in to their demands after resisting them at first. In the last week alone, Mr Sharaf promised to reshuffle his cabinet to weed out Mubarak loyalists and to do the same with provincial governors before the month's end. He also inspired his interior minister Mansour El Issawi to fire nearly 700 senior police commanders thought involved in abuse or the killing of protesters.

Judicial authorities also announced that trials of regime stalwarts and policemen accused of killing the nearly 900 protesters would be shown live on giant screens outside courthouses for people to watch.

But the protesters remain unhappy and are demanding more, contending that Mr Sharaf would do much more if the military did not have such a hold on him.

Two important developments last week could positively influence the relationship between the military and some of the protesters.

First, General El Fangari announced in his statement on July 12 that binding regulations would be drafted to govern the selection of the 100 people who would write a new constitution for the nation, taking away that privilege from the next parliament, which many fear would be dominated by Islamists. The Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, bristled at the military's move since they counted on their power in the next legislature to produce a constitution with an Islamist slant.

Second, the military announced that preparations for the legislative election would begin on September 30, effectively delaying a vote that had been widely expected to be held in September.

The delay will help new parties born out of the uprising, which have been complaining that a vote in September would be dominated by the better organised and better financed Islamists.