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Anniversary dilemma for Egypt's tarnished military

Criticised for being as oppressive as the regime it helped to topple, the junta hopes to restore its reputation with anniversary celebrations - but may further damage it instead.

Egypt’s military rulers are keen to restore their reputation, but with emotions running high about the stalled revolution, some analysts say the anniversary celebrations could cause more harm and spark new protests againt Scaf, the army council that is running the country.
Egypt’s military rulers are keen to restore their reputation, but with emotions running high about the stalled revolution, some analysts say the anniversary celebrations could cause more harm and spark new protests againt Scaf, the army council that is running the country.

Criticised for being as oppressive as the regime it helped to topple, the junta hopes to restore its reputation with anniversary celebrations - but may further damage it instead. Bradley Hope, Foreign Correspondent reports

CAIRO // Egyptians might have hoped next week's first anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak would inspire celebration rather than division.

Instead, the planned celebrations now appear as fraught with potential turmoil as the historic event they commemorate.

The anniversary will put the military rulers overseeing the transition to democracy under more scrutiny than ever before.

Hailed as the "guardians of the revolution" a year ago, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) has had its reputation tarnished by the deaths of protesters at the hands of its security forces, and by what critics say are its efforts to suppress criticism, avoid accountability and preserve the privileges its senior ranks amassed during decades of authoritarian rule.

Scaf is preparing a gala at the Pyramids of Giza to be attended by about 1,500 dignitaries, presidential candidates and "heroes of the revolution", but is believed to be considering how such an event would be seen by the public before making a decision.

It also has declared three days of celebration, including "artistic and folkloric festivities" throughout the country, and military displays from the air force and navy.

By featuring the generals paying their respects to activists and Egypt's new political powers, the council hopes to persuade sceptical Egyptians it is working with the public to implement the spirit of the revolution.

It will not be an easy sell.

"Maybe Scaf had some success, but as a whole they failed in gaining the confidence of the people and every step they made was under pressure," said retired Major-General Adel Soliman, an infantry veteran of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.

"The view of the public about Scaf has changed 180 degrees. It will require a lot of work to restore their reputation."

While the generals try to burnish their image on the outskirts of the capital, political groups and activists are set to converge on Tahrir Square to demand a speedy conclusion of the revolution they launched almost a year ago.

There in the square, centre of the 18 days of protests and fighting that ended Mubarak's 28-year reign, they are expected to condemn the military's strong-arm tactics and demand the resignation of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of Scaf.

There are growing fears that these protests will lead to renewed clashes with the security forces.

With the military and the protesters planning complementary - some say competing - events, the January 25 anniversary is a powder keg waiting to be ignited, said Ahmed Khaled Towfik, author of the 2008 novel Utopia often quoted by Tahrir protesters last year.

The book describes an Egypt in 2025, where ultra-rich, immoral youths venture from guarded enclaves to kill poor people as trophies. A revolution from the lower classes erupts in the final pages.

"There are very bad omens," Mr Towfik said. "The youth are angry, and they will not listen to wisdom. They want to avenge the blood of the martyrs … the scenario is very grim."

Mr Towfik is pessimistic about the path ahead. The options, he said, are military dictatorship, a civil war or an "Islamist, fundamentalist government".

Once considered a champion of the youth and liberal groups in Tahrir Square, the columnist for Al Tahrir newspaper was criticised after he urged respect for the elections and called on the protesters to stop stoking tensions.

As the anniversary of last year's uprising nears, however, the main target of the public's ire is clearly the military.

While the council has argued in the face of criticism that it represents the interests of the "silent majority" in restoring stability for the sake of the economy, it will soon face more intense examination from an elected parliament with a popular mandate.

Final results are due this week from elections that finished on January 4, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is expected to have won more than 40 per cent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. It plans to bring the military to heel and force it to defer to civilian rule.

The extent of the military's economic interests is expected to be a major topic of investigation. Analysts say the military controls anywhere from 6 per cent to a third of the economy.

"I believe the turning point for the military won't come with the abuse of women, atrocities and torture, but when people realise the extent of this economic control," said Khalid Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University of Cairo.

"The turning point with Mubarak, rightly or wrongly, came when the figure for his wealth being US$70 billion (Dh257bn) came out. It's a bomb waiting to explode."

Mr Soliman, the retired major-general and now head of the International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies in Cairo, blamed the generals' problems on their failure to evaluate Egyptian society after Mubarak resigned and refusing to open themselves to criticism when all other institutions were being examined closely.

The clashes at Maspero in October, in which Coptic Christians were killed, and in Tahrir Square in November and December revealed the problems at the top of the military leadership, when footage emerged of soldiers attacking and killing protesters, including military trucks running over demonstrators and the famous image of a veiled woman stripped and brutally kicked in the chest by soldiers in riot gear.

"These were violations of commanders and some individuals on the ground," Mr Soliman said. "But it was Scaf's major mistake that it didn't deal with these commanders and individuals. They should have explained who was responsible and punished them."

bhope@thenational.ae


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