Scorecard: Egypt’s army and the revolution | by Evan Hill

by Oct 13, 2011Middle East

Five months after protests broke out, has the military met demands for political reform and social justice? When Egypt’s youth-led “January 25th Revolution” forced long-serving President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11, Mubarak handed the reins of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, an 18-member body composed entirely of high-ranking commanders in the army, air force and navy. The Council, which has come to be known by its acronym, SCAF, was thrust into a political role for which it had little preparation. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the SCAF’s 76-year-old chairman, is a former infantry officer who received his commission more than half a century ago.
Yet Tantawi and his commanders moved swiftly to assuage the grievances of the revolution, lest they too be swept aside and their deep investments in the state irreperably damaged.

In the five months since protests began, the military has met some of the revolution’s most important demands. Parliament has been dissolved and the Mubarak regime’s top echelon imprisoned. But the hated state of emergency remains, and protesters have edited their most well-known refrain to reflect their new target: “The people want to bring down the regime” has become “The people want to bring down the field marshal.”

Lift the state of emergency
If protesters viewed Mubarak as the ultimate villain in their conflict with the regime, then the state of emergency was the dark cloak in which he draped himself. Five months after the revolution began, it still hangs over the country.

Though emergency law was first instituted during the 1967 war with Israel, its modern incarnation coincided with Mubarak’s ascent to power in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Under the law, security forces had impunity to violently break up public demonstrations, search property and arrest civilians without a warrant, detain indefinitely whomever they wished, and refer many to special emergency courts whose decisions only Mubarak could overturn. Decades of life under the state of emergency set the climate for routine police brutality, leading to cases such as the the alleged police murders of Khaled Said and the lesser-known Ahmed Shaaban. Outrage over Said’s death and feelings of police-imposed degradation fueled the revolution; lifting the emergency law was one of the protesters’ top demands. The SCAF, in their second communique, promised to do away with the law “once the current circumstances end,” but only the generals know when that may be. The SCAF-approved interim constitution still provides for the imposition of emergency law, subject to parliamentary and public approval, and loopholes leave room for abuse.

Arrest, investigate and try former regime officials
In the wake of the revolution, Mubarak, his two sons Gamal and Alaa, and virtually his entire cabinet have fled the country or been arrested. Some have already received prison sentences. The haul of 10 former ministers reads like a regime dinner party; it includes Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, Finance Minister Yousef Boutros-Ghali, Information Minister Anas al-Fikki, Tourism Minister Zuhair Garranah and Housing Minister Ahmed el-Maghrabi. Also detained are Fathi Sorour, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, and Safwat el-Sharif, the speaker of the Shoura Council and secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party. Zakaria Zami, Mubarak’s chief of staff, is in jail.

Steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz and Hussein Salem, a major shareholder in the East Mediterranean Gas company, which allegedly sold gas to Israel at below-market price, have both been arrested on charges of squandering public funds. Hundreds of other fugitives reportedly are wanted by Egyptian Interpol. Yet the pace of these investigations remains a powerful source of public anger, and Omar Suleiman – Mubarak’s intelligence chief and briefly his vice president – has never been charged. Adly, viewed as a key organiser of the counter-revolutionary violence that left more than 800 people dead, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, but his trial over killing protesters has been repeatedly postponed. Its adjournment again on Sunday sparked a small riot that may have contributed to Tuesday’s violence.

Gamal and Alaa have yet to face trial, and neither has Mubarak, who like Adly faces the death penalty for charges of orchestrating the killing of protesters. Tantawi isn’t likely to smile on such harsh justice for Mubarak – a military man himself and Tantawi’s former boss. The SCAF’s third communique, issued the day of Mubarak’s resignation, made a point of extending its “highest salutations and appreciation” to the ousted president.

Dissolve parliament and outlaw Mubarak’s National Democratic Party
The SCAF moved quickly to fulfill the first of these demands: Two days after Mubarak stepped down, it dissolved both houses of Egypt’s parliament, the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council. For nearly a month, Tantawi and his generals allowed Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s pre-resignation pick as prime minister, to remain in charge of a caretaker cabinet. But when Shafiq ran afoul of the protest movement by defending the hated State Security agency – Egypt’s version of East Germany’s Stasi – the SCAF removed him and appointed the better-liked former Transportation Minister Essam Sharaf to form a new cabinet.

Dissolving the National Democratic Party (NDP) took a bit longer, but the Supreme Administrative Court ordered the party disbanded in April. The SCAF arguably had little to do with that – a civil court ruled on the case, which was filed by independent lawyers – but it will have a role in deciding whether the NDP can return. So far, it has not banned former NDP politicians from running again.

Hold free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections
The SCAF originally planned to move Egypt to elections quickly; in their third communique, the generals suggested they might only need to rule until August. But that timeline quickly lengthened. The military organised a constitutional referendum in March and said a parliamentary vote could follow in September, but now government officials and high-profile politicians are talking of extending even that deadline as they realize how long it may take political parties to organise.

It does seem clear, however, that Tantawi and his colleagues intend to hold free and fair elections and step back from the limelight. The interim constitution – written by a SCAF-assembled committee – makes it far easier to run for president, and two new laws on political participation will fully restore judicial supervision of elections and allow a much wider array of parties to register, subject to judicial and not political approval, as before. Curiously though, the SCAF-approved interim constitution bars anyone with multiple nationalities or a non-Egyptian spouse from running for president, which was not one of the protesters’ demands, and its draft election law maintains that two-thirds of the People’s Assembly be elected individually, by district, which long allowed local elites – almost always from the NDP – to maintain power.

Protect the revolution’s demonstrators and hold police accountable
Though the military has paid effusive public homage to the revolutionary youth and those who died in the protests, it has failed almost completely in its promise to protect demonstrators and rein in the police. “We guarantee there will be no legal pursuit of the honorables who rejected corruption and demanded reform,” the SCAF claimed in its second communique, issued the day Mubarak resigned.

Yet on at least five occasions since then, the army has helped assault and arrest protesters occupying Tahrir Square, and activists believe military police have arrested up to 10,000 civilians, hundreds of whom were peaceful demonstrators. Many are then subject to ad-hoc military trials without legal representation and given suspended sentences in the hopes of preventing them from protesting again. Some have been shipped off to prison. Photographs and eyewitness testimonies have described army troops beating protesters with cables and electrified batons, and the head of military intelligence recently confirmed to Amnesty International that soldiers conducted virginity tests on 17 female protesters in March.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s Central Security riot police, who disappeared during the revolution, have returned with a vengeance to violently confront demonstrations. At best, the army attempts to separate protesters and riot police; at worst, it assists in the crackdown. Only one policeman, Mohamed Abdel Moneim, has been tried and sentenced for killing protesters during the revolution, but he remains at large.

Suspend the constitution and write a new one subject to public approval
On the same day the SCAF dissolved parliament, it suspended the constitution. The drafting of an interim constitution and its approval by public referendum quickly followed, but the process was marred by lack of public debate, and many activists wish the government had gone further. The committee that wrote Egypt’s interim constitution – in fact, they only wrote a small set of new amendments and left the rest suspended – was selected by the SCAF. It included a Coptic Christian judge and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there were no women, and some activists were concerned that its chairman – moderate judge and Mubarak critic Tarek el-Bishry – had Islamist associations. The military made public their final draft only three weeks before it went up for national vote, though the vote was considered orderly and transparent.

The interim constitution opened up political participation, reinvigorated the judiciary and restrained some executive power – reforms that were welcomed by protesters – but it fell short of overhauling the system, and many Egyptians, especially liberals, wanted an entirely new document written prior to elections. According to the interim constitution, a new one will be written by a 100-member committee within six months of the new parliament taking office.

Reform the security forces and limit executive power
Egypt’s loathed State Security agency was responsible for many of the worst abuses of the Mubarak era, including rampant domestic surveillance and torture. In March, the Interior Ministry announced that the agency had been dissolved and replaced with a new National Security Force, whose mandate would not include “interfering in the lives of citizens,” but activists believe the change was purely cosmetic. Former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and several of his top lieutenants are facing trial, and dozens of State Security officers reportedly have been arrested for destroying evidence, but the government has announced no program or reconciliation committee to deal with the agency’s thousands of other employees or the distrust citizens maintain toward the ministry. Similarly, the Central Security forces have not been subject to reform. Their involvement in breaking up the Tahrir Square protests on Tuesday and Wednesday left more than 1,000 people injured.

Egypt’s interim constitution does limit executive authority – it allows the president only two terms of four years each and requires at least one vice president – but it still grants the ability to call for a new constitution and declare a state of emergency, subject to parliamentary approval. There are also fears that the military may try to hold onto its own kind of executive authority: In mid-June, General Mamdouh Shahin suggested the new constitution exempt the military from budgetary oversight and grant the power to intervene in political affairs.

Improve the average Egyptians’ economic position
While it’s unfair to expect the SCAF to rapidly lift millions of Egyptians out of poverty, the desire to win some kind of social justice for country’s millions of poor citizens was one of the basic hopes of the revolution. In response, despite the uprising’s deep blow to Egypt’s revenues, the caretaker leadership has at least taken steps to avoid worsening the situation: State spending on fuel subsidies and salaries in the coming fiscal year will both rise by more than 20 per cent, a monthly minimum wage of $118 has been introduced, and the income tax rate for businesses earning more than $1.6 million has risen from 20 to 25 per cent.

But much of the country’s economic policy remains unsustainable and likely won’t begin to be fixed until the SCAF leaves power. Fuel and food subsidies are popular, but the entire subsidy system is three times the size of the education budget and perversely tends to help businesses more than the poor, the Economist magazine has argued.

Egypt is accepting billions in foreign donations but turned down a $3 billion package of loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that could have served as a stopgap measure. The government argued that a revised budget deficit made the loans unnecessary but did not say how it would actually make the reduction; activists, meanwhile, distrusted the IMF and denounced the offer as likely doing more to hurt the poor. The loan rejection may also have reflected the SCAF’s internal logic: Analysts believe the military controls at least one-fifth of the Egyptian economy, and its wariness of foreign influence – the same wariness that seems to lie behind the nationalistic limitations on presidential candidates – may spring from a desire to maintain the status quo.

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