Egypt: The Military Struggles to Maintain its Legitimacy

by Hüseyin Koyuncu, Arab Spring Series // Published December 12, 2011

Egypt: The Military Struggles to Maintain its Legitimacy

 When embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell after a wave of mass demonstrations in February  2011, the army, led by Marshal Tantawi, stepped in to fill the political vacuum.  Seeking to appeal to popular sentiments, the army promised to hold a presidential election before the end of June 2012. 

Although the army was initially credited with having provided the stability the country needed following the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, many Egyptians quickly tired of its perceived delay tactics and began to wonder if the military planned to honor its promise to hold elections. As the army’s credibility and public standing continued to erode, protestors began calling for the military to relinquish power and “return to the barracks.” 

In time, these frustrated Egyptians took to the streets of Tahrir Square in a second wave of demonstrations, shouting, “Get out,” the same slogan they exclaimed at Mubarak last year. Since November 19, police have killed several dozen people, marking the first time security forces have fired bullets at the demonstrators. 

Seeking to quell the crisis, the interim government headed by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, tendered its resignation, while Tantawi, expressing “deep regret” for the deaths, has opened a talks with civilian political leaders. A diverse coalition of ideological groups – leftists, liberals – came out in support of the protestors. Unlike the anti-Mubarek protests, where the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately played a central role, Islamist groups largely did not join the recent demonstrations. This apprehension about protesting apparently is due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s anticipated electoral success. If the protests erupted into a general crisis, then the elections might be canceled

The violence since November 19th in Tahrir Square seemed to give credence to theories that the army would attempt to kill democracy before it had had time to mature.  According to Al Tahrir Newspaper, those who gave the order to step in on Saturday morning cannot have had the good of the country in mind. If anything, police violence has failed to stem the tide, managing to transform a gathering of two hundred people into a protest of tens of thousands of people determined to defend the revolution against the army’s perceived authoritarian temptation. Indeed, some Egyptians began to compare Tantawi to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in 1954 took advantage of similar unrest to seize power.

Completely misreading the demands of protestors, the military offered a referendum that – if approved by the people – would have established civil society control of the interim government. The catch was that the army would appoint the new leadership rather than permit accelerated democratic elections. With such a proposal, the army has underestimated clearly the will of the revolutionaries.

Old Habits Die Hard as Military Continues Human Rights Abuses: 

This conflict shows that a legacy of brutality and authoritarianism over more than sixty years does not die overnight. In a report entitled Broken Promises: Egypt's Military Rulers Erode Human Rights, Amnesty International illustrates how the Supreme Council of the armed forces’ record on human rights has been deporable. In this report, Amnesty International highlighted that the Supreme Council of the armed forces had not only failed to fulfill its public pledge to improve human rights, but had actually performed even worse than Mubarak in some areas. 

In August, the Council acknowledged that about 12,000 civilians in the country had appeared before military courts in grossly unfair trials. At least 13 were sentenced to death. Philip Luther, Deputy Director of North Africa and Middle East at Amnesty International, claims that, by repressing peaceful demonstrations and expanding the scope of the emergency legislation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has continued repressive traditions. 

The Army’s role when it took the reins of the government was to carry out a peaceful transition to a democratic society and to protect and respect the demonstrators, regardless of its opinions. Clearly, with Egyptians dying in Tahrir Square and locked in the military’s prisons, the army has failed on both accounts.

But at the same time, there November elections indicated that there is a third key force in Egypt – beyond the military and the street protestors, there is a large number of Egyptians who want a better economy, a government that works and, potentially, more acceptance of Islamic traditions. Even as many protestors called for a boycott of the November 23 elections, turnout ended up being more than half of eligible voters. In my next piece, I’ll discuss these elections and what they may mean for Egypt in the coming year.