• 15:01
  • Thursday ,09 August 2012

Cry Freedom: A Conceptual Account of Egypt's Times of Revolution (Part 1: the Military)

by Hani Shukrallah



Thursday ,09 August 2012

Cry Freedom: A Conceptual Account of Egypt's Times of Revolution (Part 1: the Military)

The Egyptian revolution unfolded as three distinct and competing political wills; each laying claim to having played a part in its making; each could credibly claim to be, or indeed, be claimed as its birth-child;and all three could acquire – in varying measures – the legitimacy of their post-revolutionary status on the nation's political stage from the 18 glory days that followed upon the epochal 25th of January 2011.

These are: the military, the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and, it goes without saying, the revolutionary political will itself, what we might refer to in shorthand as the "Tahrir Platform", or even the Tahrir discourse.
Looking at post-revolutionary Egyptian reality thus seems to put into stark relief the bitter irony that lies at the heart of the Revolution of 25 January: its greatest fruits having fallen in inverse proportion to the role each of the three political wills have played in its creation.
I would suggest that the past 18 months, the so-called "transitory phase", can be made intelligible only through attempting to interpret the dynamics of interaction and struggle, the coming together and drawing apart, the conflicts and accommodations, pressures and counter pressures, confrontations and deals, the exercise of soft and hard power – all of which have characterized the tumultuous process through which each of these three great political wills competed to define the "new Egypt".
And as these frenzied "best of times and worst of times" have also come to show, having a revolution as midwife was no guarantee that the "new Egypt" would be a child of revolution; nor indeed, that it would not be a clone of its forebear, or even a slightly modified, or misshapen chip off the old block.
The military, at once the most glaringly present and most opaque of the three, was the immediate primary beneficiary of the 18-day popular revolution. Egypt's revolutionary history appeared to have come full circle. In July 1952 the military staged a revolution, which soon won the support of the people, while in January 2011 (nearly 60 years later), the people staged a revolution which soon enough seemed to have won the support of the military.
"The people and the army as one hand" proved to have been ephemeral, however.
As hard as it is to attempt to make sense of the vagaries of the Egyptian "military mind" over the past year and a half, the essential attributes of the preeminent political will in the country in post 11 February Egypt, embodied in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), are fairly straight forward.
True, there have been many occasions when neither the public, nor the various political actors or analysts could figure out whether certain of SCAF's actions denoted extreme ineptitude or the most convoluted of conspiracies.
Yet, for all that, the fundamental objective of the military's intervention has been, throughout, wholly consistent and glaringly obvious, and that, simply, is to save as much of Mubarak's authoritarian state as could be saved, and to maintain as much as possible of the fractured and crumbling institutions of that state.  
This, in my view, has been the overriding – if you want, 'altruistic' – concern governing the behavior of the military in post-Mubarak Egypt, and not any real desire to set themselves up as supreme rulers, to create an Argentine generals' government, and to bring about direct military rule.
This "altruism", one might add, is naturally delimited by the fundamental fact that Mubarak's authoritarian state is a state based on privilege, and that among the most privileged elements of that state are its military commanders.  
Once we free our minds from the obsession with direct military rule – rooted in the unresolved trauma of Nasser's "military society" and its humiliating defeat in June 67 – the behaviour of SCAF, from the moment Mubarak called it to order on 28 January and up to today, appears as wholly coherent and utterly consistent – even when we are obliged to bring on board a great deal of bungling and ineptitude; ultimately, though much of that behaviour has struck many as madness, there's been a great deal of method in't.
Only such "selfless" determination to save as much as might be saved of the Mubarak state could explain the way SCAF so casually squandered the enormous popular goodwill it enjoyed at the outset of its "transitory" accession to the summit of the Egyptian political order on the evening of 11 February.
And this was no mere "moral" capital that might pale when contrasted to the coarser forms of capital such as real power and privilege.
In fact, "the people and the army are one hand" found expression not just in hundreds of Egyptian families cheerfully photographing their children on top of tanks, but in an easy willingness, on the part of the general public no less than the nascent political society, to look the other way where military privileges were concerned; a willingness even to give the military command some special status within the then anticipated democratic political structures of the new Egypt.
 All of which, SCAF seemed only too happy to fritter away; the image of the "heroes of the crossing" of October 73 pledged to defend the nation and the people soon enough transmutating not just into 1967's abhorred and despised army of defeat, but much further afield, pulling on the monstrous visage of a Pinochet and that of his neighboring Argentine generals.  
Yet, there was method in't. For one thing, the ruling clique at the very summit of the Egyptian state – civil, military, "deep state" and business elite - is a very tightly knit network constituted of familial relations (they invariably married their kids off to one another) close friendships (adjacent north coast villas, and summer party guest lists), and above all a most intricate web of business interests, which extended well beyond the nation's borders.
The revolution's overriding call: "the people demand the overthrow of the regime", could mean only one thing, the dismantling of this web of inequity; yet, for the military command, which presumably saved the revolution by not shooting at the protesters (ultimately a rather short term kindness), this was a recipe for disaster.
Loyalty among "the old boys" was not a paramount consideration, though if you believe the whispers, there were not a few among the Mubarak regime's more heinous figures who were spared punishment because "the Field Marshal liked them." The opposite was even truer. The first batch of businessmen-cum-government officials to be put to the figurative guillotine were – for some reason or another – disliked by the military, the intelligence bodies or the Field Marshal himself.
Fundamentally, however, the very raison d'être of the military-led "transition" was to keep this clique of state bosses as intact as they possibly can, even if it meant flagrantly reneging on their promise "never to fire at protesters," squandering the people's good-will and losing the Egyptian military the sacred cow status it had enjoyed, uncontested, since the October War of 1973.
This is not merely self-interest. When SCAF members and their various apologists describe the ongoing revolutionary demands as an attempt to "overthrow the state", as a recipe for chaos and fragmentation, as Somalia on the Mediterranean – the propagandistic claim expresses a kernel of true conviction. It is a case of "l'état c'est nous"; they simply cannot imagine a non-authoritarian state, at least in this country.
Have a private tête-à-tête with the most mild-natured; seemingly sophisticated, often US PhD-ed  member of our ruling elite and you'll very soon discover the yawning depths of their contempt for the Egyptian people, equal only to their fawning adulation of the advanced West – about whose democracy, its history, makings and limitations, they demonstrate vast ignorance.
Mubarak used to openly say that Egyptians were not ready for democracy; so did his erstwhile intelligence chief and ephemeral vice-president, the late Omar Suleiman. Notwithstanding their odes in praise of democracy, popular will and, of course, the free market, the Egyptian ruling class, self-designated liberals all, most profoundly share this conviction.
Yet there was an even more immediate, more compelling reason behind the stubborn determination of the generals and their advisors not to respond to the most basic demands of the revolutionary masses, resorting to trickery, manipulation, conspiracy and open brutal repression. And this lay in their very real fear that the merest brush directed at the Mubarak state's instruments of repression, not only would seriously undermine the efficacy of these bodies in maintaining order, especially against a people in revolt, but might well cause them to unravel altogether.
The Egyptian revolution was first and foremost a revolution against the police state. It was no coincidence that it erupted on 25 January, Police Day; Egyptians had had enough of the brutality and repression, the torture and the savagery that had made the country's police authorities the ultimate masters of the nation, an occupation army or a barbaric militia holding God-like powers of life and death over the millions of Egyptians lying outside the small circles of the privileged.
Torture had become so pervasive that the main torture monitoring body in Egypt, the Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, estimated that hundreds of people were subjected to torture every single day.
And it was these very "law enforcement" authorities that unleashed against the peaceful protesters a campaign of murder and subversion, killing over a thousand people in the space of three days, mobilizing and letting loose thousands of thugs armed with anything from rifles and shot guns to swords and knives, opening prison gates and setting bands of criminals – often police led – to wreak havoc across the country, in a deliberate "scorched earth" strategy aimed at sowing terror and mayhem among the population at large.
Yet, one year and a half after the revolution, not a single police official has been found guilty of any of these crimes, many of which were committed openly before TV cameras; one low-ranking provincial policeman was handed down a six year prison sentence for killing some dozen people.
This was most starkly revealed in the Mubarak trial, which the Egyptian media dubbed with remarkable hyperbole "the trial of the century" – not a small exaggeration, at least for the fact that the century in question has some 88 years to go.
Lasting for months, involving dozens of lawyers both for the defence and the civil plaintiffs, thousands of documents, and with most of its sessions aired live on TV, the trial ended as pure farce: a long-winded political statement by the chief judge, in which he condemned the "ancien régime" in the strongest terms, using a flourishing, fatuous rhetoric, remarkable for its shockingly atrocious grammar; handing out two life sentences to Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib El-Adly for conspiring to desist from preventing the committing of the crime of murder, while, amazingly, finding that there was no evidence that that crime had been committed in the first place, thus acquitting all the top police officials who ostensibly had committed the crimes from which Mubarak and Adly had failed to prevent them.  
At the time, I recall tweeting, in Arabic: "Flawed life sentences for Mubarak and Adly; acquittals for Mubarak boys and police officials, death for the Arabic language."
 In a private conversation on that same day, a veteran judge described the life-sentencing of the ousted president and his interior minister as "deferred acquittals", a conclusion that was shared by the bulk of the legal community down to second year law students.
The case against Mubarak, no less than almost each and every case involving police crimes against the people were inherently rigged from the very start. In effect, and to put it somewhat brazenly, these were criminal cases which were investigated by the culprits themselves, prosecuted by the defence, and judged by SCAF.  
There are two aspects to this: the first is proactive, if you will; SCAF simply had no intention of responding to the revolutionary demand for the dismantling of the police state, and hence was unwilling to do anything that might weaken further the very instruments of repression and coercion that are the mainstay of that state.
 The second element of the military's attitude in this respect was of a more reactive nature. The fear that under the mildest of blows, the country's massive police apparatus, built over decades, yet deeply wounded, would come apart; not just in the sense of collapsing like a house of cards, but have substantial sections of that apparatus go rogue.
Such an eventuality is by no means hypothetical; we saw it happen. In three days the nation's gigantic police force, having been physically defeated on streets across the country, totally absconded. Prison gates were deliberately let open, bands of marauding thugs and criminals were let loose on the population; police officers responsible for guarding particular sites led bands of criminals to rob them – this included a wave of ancient Egyptian antiquities theft –, attempts at sabotage and arson were unleashed, from which even the Egyptian Museum, the greatest storehouse of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world, was not excluded.
The swiftness, comprehensiveness and uniformity with which this "scorched earth campaign" was launched strongly indicated that these were not merely the haphazard symptoms of a domestic security structure in process of collapse, but a deliberate policy; indeed, very likely a contingency plan being put into effect.
To what extent were the military complicit, or not, in such an "après moi le deluge" strategy is difficult to ascertain; some complicity is almost certainly indicated. More significantly, however, is that the police knew, and made the whole country aware, that they are more than capable and willing to go rogue. And that in so doing, they have at their hands a massive network made up not only of their own men, but of several hundred thousand thugs, criminals, informers and hosts of others living on the margins of social order, dependent for their daily livelihood, on the goodwill of their various police handlers.
This was underlined again and again in the course of the "transition" period, so that even the most miserable of sacrificial lambs seemed to carry with it the threat of unraveling the whole blood-drenched menagerie.
The military's unyielding determination to shield the instruments of coercion at any cost is in fact one of the principal defining features, or to use a rather old fashioned phrase, "laws of motion" of the "transition" period. The military believed that by giving up Mubarak they could safeguard his police state, but the revolutionary masses had targeted Mubarak, primarily, as the overlord of that police state.
It was this intractable contradiction that would bring hundreds of thousands of Egyptians back on the street over and over again, providing both the single most compelling propelling force for the on-going revolution and its most all embracing cause.  
When the SCAF and their assortment of clownish mouthpieces habitually accused the revolutionaries of seeking to "overthrow the state", what they meant is the police state.