Since March, reported incidents of the Egyptian army’s human rights abuses and use of force against civilians have been on the rise. These incidents seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy by the army’s Supreme Command. While attempting to comfort those who feared a continuation of military rule, members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) repeatedly assured Egyptians that they have no aspirations to rule the country, explaining that the army was neither structured nor trained for civilian chores. But the army’s performance in the last three months raises doubts about its ability to perform any kind of chores whether political, civilian or military.
The early incidents of violence (explained in my previous article) were limited, both in scope and damage, and were usually followed by the military’s apologies and assurances. The public, at that stage, was too eager to believe the army commanders who sided with the revolution and who represented the last standing authority after the resignation of the president, the fall of the police force and the disbanding of the parliament. Unfortunately, as the clashes increased in fierceness and as casualties mounted the SCAF’s popularity took a nose dive among politicians and activists, although it remained robust among large sectors of the population.
Consequently, doubts about the SCAF’s motives and intentions filled the media and were a frequently debated topic, even among apolitical Egyptians. Many decisions and non-decisions undertaken by the military remain a big mystery. Although it is very difficult find coherence in the secretive Supreme Council’s actions and decisions, yet, in the case of the excessive use of force some background knowledge and close observation of events may provide some clues.
A Confusing Picture
Foreign analysts who depend on news carried by foreign media in evaluating the events in Egypt will inevitably be misled. The Arab spring has turned demonstrations into a daily activity and while dozens of Yemeni, Syrian and Libyan civilians participating in protest were being massacred, Egyptians were peacefully demonstrating almost on weekly basis. Understandably, since these demonstrations became almost a weekly routine and since they were usually uneventful, they ceased to make the headlines. Starting from Mubarak’s last days in power after the collapse of his security machine and the removal of his cronies’ failure in their last stand on February 2nd, demonstrations were usually peaceful. The few incidents where the police or army clashed with demonstrators were far apart and except for those mentioned here the only other conflicts were related to criminal activities. This may be confusing for who see the picture of SCAF in the foreign media being portrayed, perhaps unavoidably, as a cruel authoritarian regime that is intolerant to dissent. Actually, throughout most of the past months, SCAF had been lax, hesitant and slow to react and up to September the most prevalent criticism they received was that they were overly tolerant. Nevertheless, this neither implies their absolution from responsibility for the violence nor does it indicate that their hearts and minds are in the right place.
Going back to August, when demonstrators started calling for the ousting of the SCAF or the stepping down of Marshal Tantawi, the military kept neutral and exercised self-restraint enduring the harsh accusations, cursing and profanities from some of the protestors. The earlier March 9th famous incident that ended with the virginity tests could be read either as an individual case of field command failure or a miscalculation. At that time the public support for the continuation of protest was waning and the economy was bleeding badly. The increased activism inspired workers all over the country to go on strikes that frequently turned violent with workers attacking management and facilities while the government stood watching afraid that a confrontation could damage the ailing police force’s reputation and might encourage more violence. AT that time the media and the business community were calling for firmness against activists’ excesses which prompted SCAF to issue decrees allowing peaceful demonstrations but introducing some restrictions on sit-ins and strikes. The March incident, which started with an army attack on a few protestors who decided to sleep over in Tahrir Square and ended in detaining some of them, caused an uproar that the army did not expect since they had felt that the public mood was against prolonged demonstrations. The virginity tests are difficult to explain but are probably an overzealous decision by one of the field commanders for whom a sleep over in the square by a female protestor was a socially unacceptable act equivalent to prostitution, which may sound bizarre for a westerner but not for the Egyptian conservative majority. Still this incident gave a peek into what may be some of the more disturbing characteristics of the Egyptian military mind, which we will later delve into.
Reform vs. Stability
The second incident, which was more violent, was more justifiable. Protestors had surrounded the Israeli embassy and were attempting to break in and some even succeeded in climbing the building and entering one of its offices. The army had to move in and support the police after being criticized by the US and the Israeli administrations.
As explained earlier the army avoided confrontation with demonstrations and was successful for some time in doing that because their presence was usually out of demonstrators’ main area of activity; Tahrir. However, the military police was entrusted with protecting some of the most critical government buildings and one of those was the Radio and Television building in the Maspero district near Tahrir. It was a usual destination for Coptic activists protest and the presence of military guards there did not cause any problem until the 9th of October when the biggest and bloodiest confrontation took place. There were several events that increased tensions between Copts and the army that led to that moment. All of these events involved aggression by fanatic Islamists against Copts and their churches but the government and the army hesitated to intervene until it was too late. And although after each act of vandalism against church facilities SCAF reconstructed these damaged facilities using army funds and resources, however, they could not rebuild the damaged dignity nor could they restore the trust of Copts.
Army sympathizers can attribute the Maspero incident to panic or third party instigators but the Sheikh Rehan st. incident was more difficult to justify. The government admitted that the incident started with the beating of a demonstrator and despite the protestors resort to violence, the army’s reaction was brutal and unrestrained. The photos and videos of women being dragged by the hair and fallen demonstrators being hit at by soldiers outnumbering them six to one using sticks and frequently their boots are images that have tainted the army’s reputation worldwide, in addition to horrifying many army sympathizers winning over some of them, who were previously against the continuation of demonstrations, to the protestors side. My estimate is that the majority of Egyptians are still on the side of SCAF and believe that activists are disturbing the peace, damaging the economy and impeding the political process. That is a fact that is rarely mentioned in international media and is essential for understanding why revolutionaries who removed Mubarak are so weak in the face of SCAF. But, it is worth mentioning that most of that majority of SCAF supporters are categorized as ‘couch party’ members whose numbers exceed by far their political clout. The 25th of January demonstrations overwhelmed the fearsome police state only when the activists were joined by the usually silent masses on the 28th.
It is difficult to discount SCAF’s concern for the country’s economic situation and their fear of chaos as factors that may contribute to their increased mistrust in hardcore activists leading both parties into fierce confrontations. But, it is also difficult to ignore evidence that since the very early days of the revolution SCAF was very reluctant to embark on the course towards deep and extensive reform. There is wide consensus among political analysts that SCAF’s policies indicate that they see the removal of Mubarak and his close circle of cronies as a sufficiently substantial achievement beyond which reform can fall back to a more gradual and slow-paced process. This view is of course considered scandalous by almost anyone who had participated in the uprising. For them, Mubarak was only one of many pillars of a corrupt regime that encompass almost anyone who has had a political role (including opposition figures) during its era and that real reform requires more than just the replacement of some figureheads.
The Age and Skill Factors
Two other important dimensions that may have deepened SCAF’s adoption of conservative reform policies are the age factor and the brain drain. Most SCAF members are over sixty and their most senior members are over seventy. As one close SCAF advisor recently told me, ‘these people are unable to make a quick decision and unwilling to take any risks’. He also reminded me that during the 1973 war most of the army’s top commanders had not yet reached their mid-fifties and Mubarak himself, the air force commander, was in his forties. Add to this that Mubarak, a risk-avert person himself, had always favored low-key conservative and cautious characters when choosing aids and his paranoid nature coupled with his low IQ meant that sharp intelligent personalities were systematically weeded out except if they were deceitful enough not to appear too clever for their own good.
Furthermore, the Egyptian army, as an institution, had been conditioned for so many years to value keeping the peace above any other goal in the face of continuous provocations in the hottest part of the world. This has required deep-rooted change in the convictions and values of the organization. It has also required a more authoritarian style of management and a culture that rewards obedience over excellence and creativity, transforming the army into a mindless bureaucracy. After Egypt’s move towards open market economic policies in the late seventies, in a political environment that did not provide civil servants with the tools to lobby for their rights, government pay froze at a time of aggressive inflation while more lucrative employment opportunities became increasingly available in the private sector. This has had a negative effect on the military’s ability to maintain its competitiveness and recruit the needed skills.
The above mentioned factors of a) concern for the peace and the bleeding economy, b) risk aversion and favoring gradual reform and c) incompetence may explain SCAF’s conflict with protestors and activists that have at times turned violent but it still fails to justify the extent to which the army reacted in some instances and the resulting carnage in the last three months’ incidents.
The Military Trials
As previously explained, during the early days of the revolution, the army rarely resorted to police-state tactics in the face of demonstrations but starting from the Maspero massacre, not only did the level of brutality increase but the use of military courts to prosecute activists became a hot issue. Under pressure from the general public who was suffering from the increase of criminal activities after the collapse of the police in January 28th, SCAF issued a decree authorizing the use of military law to prosecute outlaws and thugs and although some human rights activists raised concerns, the general public saw it as an inevitable measure during such hard times especially since Egyptian courts are notoriously slow. After some of the demonstrations turned violent the army started apprehending and prosecuting protestors for committing acts of terror. One controversial case was that of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent Tahrir revolutionary and the son of two human rights activists. The case was considered a charade and Alaa refused to recognize the court, starting a series of protest activities raising his case to the forefront of protestors’ demands. At the end SCAF had to give way and transfer the case and other similar ones to civilian courts.
The transformation of military trials from being a tool to establish law and order to means of squelching protest is one of the more important clues to the inner workings of the SCAF’s collective mind and this is where the picture becomes darker.
The Army Comes First
Witness accounts of the activists rounded up then released during the Cabinet (Sheikh Rehan st.) confrontation draws a picture of officers acting as if on a crusade to defeat the enemies of the republic. These officers and their soldiers were running around beating, shouting and using foul language against injured women, children and doctors. Either they saw this behavior as an effective tool against those brazen ‘outlaws’ who were wreaking havoc with the countries stability or they were acting in vengeance for the verbal abuses and the stone throwing they were subject to. Detainees witnessed high ranking officers who did not contribute to the abuse but nonetheless did not rebuke it and eventually released the prisoners in spite of objections from a junior officer. This indicates that the top brass saw the younger ranks behavior as imprudent but justifiable. This was also echoed a few days later when Major General Adel Emara, in the press conference dedicated to justifying the army’s human right abuses during these events, kept repeating, ‘you have to understand what these troops have been through before throwing accusations at them’. It is true that many demonstrators have become accustomed to attacking SCAF and the Marshal Tantawi using derogatory words and even accused them of treason and profiteering and it is also true that during clashes army personnel are sometimes the subject of cursing and teasing but one would expect them to be trained on self-restraint and not get out of control. One would also expect their commanders to reprimand them if they step out of line. Thus, it is clear that those commanders believe that the tough tactics are required to achieve their mission or protect their pride. The authoritarian military mind coupled with third world concept of citizens’ limited rights in times of trouble is in full play here. Moreover, attitudes towards women and minorities may encourage abuse to those who dare and break society’s norms, as in mixing with men and spending the night in the square.
But the army units did not stop at the beatings and the verbal abuse. They also shot at the protestors using live ammunition. So the more important question would be whether a mixture of provocations, miscalculations and incompetence can result in killing scores of protestors, even if these protestors were infiltrated by violent types who were trying to burn down government buildings? It is ludicrous to believe that army officers were running around shooting demonstrators without being ordered or at least allowed to do so by their commanders. SCAF used paratroopers and Special Forces units instead of military police in the Rehan st. incident, which was an indication that they condoned the possible use of violence in that instant. It was understandable that their patience was running thin and that they were determined this time to squash the protest because it was threatening to disrupt the parliamentary elections and preventing the new government from assuming its responsibilities. But was the killing necessary and was force exercised with the expected degree of restraint? The number of casualties and the manner with which they were killed prove otherwise. It is clear that either the troops were ordered to control the situation at all cost or that these army units are uncontrollable killing machines.
Lack of transparency opens the way to guesses about motives and level of responsibility; however, SCAF gave indications that army morale and avoidance of any internal discord was their top priority. One activist reported that in a meeting with some SCAF members he was told that the army’s internal unity is of the highest importance, insinuating that if the country falls the army would be there to rescue it but if the army falls then the whole country will follow. That explains why the army did not declare its casualties in Maspero or any other confrontation, even though that could have helped justifying their resort to violence. It also may explain why the presumed trials of army personnel who committed acts of violence were reluctantly declared but never detailed. In every case the SCAF valued the army’s internal unity and morale over improving its tarnished image.
Conclusion: The End Justifies the Means
To summarize; the army’s resort to abuse and excessive violence is the result of a mixture of factors. One factor that I believe is the explanation favored and supported by a large portion of the population are the good causes of protecting the economy, home land security, peace and order. Causes that their duty to serve Egypt dictates and as the reluctant and unprepared bearer of responsibility they performed it in the way they see fit. The majority of Egyptians see the army as their last standing institution and are ready to accept what it takes to keep it that way until the other legislative and administrative institutions are back in business, even if it comes to accepting its committing of some abuses. Thus the second factor of lack of competence is overlooked or readily excused, though, without it the good intentions factor does not stand. It is incomprehensible to view the army’s crisis management performance as driven by necessity since each action instigated fiercer counter violence while simultaneously damaging the Egyptian military’s reputation. At the tactical level these actions cannot be justified neither by their goals nor by their outcome. Starting a week long battle just to clear out some protesters and their tents who were occupying a mere corner of Tahrir Square, and ending up building a wall to protect security forces from demonstrators’ attacks while losing the trust of more activists and political groups in addition to being hit by a barrage of bad publicity in international media, hardly qualifies as a successful strategy to achieve peace and stability. This is clearly a case where incompetence played an important role.
However, incompetence cannot justify ordering elite army units, armed with guns and live ammunition, to chase demonstrators (even if they were considered rioters) down Tahrir Sq. shooting at them and killing dozens of them. Yes, it was elections time and the economy was and is still suffering but the actions of these troops, as clearly depicted on videos, were acts of war against civilians and therefore betray feelings of superiority and a poisoned belief that human rights are a luxury to be ignored in times of trouble.