What To Make of the Military, Part 3

Could the army be resurrecting the Free Officers?

Twice now, I have contemplated the possibility that the second coming of the Free Officers might have arrived in Egypt. The original Free officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, took control from the government after a series of riots in Cairo, only to install the despotic system that was just overthrown by the Egyptian people. As political prisoners remain in prison, the army is looking for a new governmental post for former vice president and current reviled symbol of the Mubarak regime, Omar Suleiman. Despite the dissolving parliament and officially suspending the constitution, there are clear worries that the army will fight to remain in power.

Wright laments about the mixed signals offered by the army:

The long-term intentions of the ruling military council remain obscure. Today they answered more of the protest movement’s demands — dissolving parliament and offering a six-month timetable for a new constitution and elections. But the other demands are not going away – the release of detainees, an end to the state of emergency and the formation of a new transitional cabinet to replace the one inherited from Mubarak. At the same time Al Arabiya is reporting that the council will find a new role in government for Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief that Mubarak appointed vice president in late January. That sends a signal in completely the opposite direction, given that the protest movement now sees Suleiman as a prime symbol of the old regime. At this stage in the revolution each and every personnel change is important and will be carefully watched to see where the military council is taking the country.

Ayoob warns of the difficulty of dislodging a military government:

However, it will be a tragedy if such euphoria turned into complacency. Despite the conciliatory rhetoric emanating from the military brass, the officer corps as an institution continues to have a vested interest in the political and economic power structure created and preserved by the regime under Sadat and Mubarak. To expect the military to relinquish its corporate interests for the sake of popular welfare is likely to turn out to be delusion.

The hard task of bringing the military under civilian and democratic control begins now with the departure of Mubarak. One should not underestimate either the staying power of the military or its capacity to seek revenge on those who attempt to force it out of the political arena. It took Turkey sixty years, from 1950 to 2010 – from the first democratic elections to the Ergenekon affair – to impose a respectable amount of civilian control over the military. The path was anything but easy. There were four military coups (three hard and one soft), the execution of a prime minister, the repeated banning of political parties unpalatable to the military brass, and even a threat as late as 2007 that the military may stage a coup if Abdullah Gul was elected president of the republic. Democratic consolidation is not an easy task and Egyptian politicians and the general public if they are committed to achieving genuine democracy must be ready to pay the price that such an endeavor is likely to entail.

And Sedra reminds us of the tough lessons of 1952:

My purpose, rather, is to caution those who seek comfort in military guarantees of “stability” against compromise with the army at this critical moment. Egyptians now have an historic opportunity before them – to dislodge, at long last, the military from their politics. To allow the military to continue to govern the Egyptian people, as it has since the 1952 Revolution against British rule, would be to commit the unpardonable sin of repeating a cardinal error of the past. It is time to return the proprietorship of the Egyptian government to its people. It is time to let hope, rather than fear, rule the day. Only then will we lay to rest that specter of Cairo burning, the specter that has haunted Egypt through so much of its modern history.

For me the most worrying sign is that the military has not condemned the entirety of the old regime to political insignificance. Retaining politicians close to Mubarak (and part of the Mubarak institution) while arresting protest organizers and prohibiting gatherings at Tahrir Square is not the best way to instill confidence in the public.

Photo from On Islam

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