The army didn't get the message the first time, so we're taking to the streets. Again.
- By Mohamed El DahshanMohamed El Dahshan is a development economist and a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
CAIRO, Egypt—During his stand-up routine at Cairo’s "Sawy Culture Wheel" last week, comedian Adham Abdel Salam quipped, "Our relationship with the army is that of a woman with the husband she knows cheats on her — but she won’t say anything because she’s worried about the kids."
That may be about to change. Since Feb. 11, when Egyptian protesters jumped atop tanks and hugged soldiers to thank them for standing with the people against the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, the relationship between January 25 protest movement and the military, led by its Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), has reached an all-time low.
At the height of the revolution, protesters chanted, "The army and the people are one hand" as fatigue-clad paratroopers, unlike the despised police, refused to shoot their fellow citizens. The SCAF’s first communiqué, issued on the eve of Mubarak’s abdication, expressed the army’s support of "the people’s legitimate demands."
The honeymoon is definitely over.
On May 23rd, more than 370 bloggers defied a journalistic ban on broaching the subject of the army and heeded a call to write a post "evaluating the performance of the SCAF as the ruler of the country, with the aim of providing constructive criticism." They criticized military trials for civilians, the emergency law, and the ruling junta’s failure to prosecute members of the old regime. On Twitter, the #NoSCAF hashtag was assuredly the most widely used all day, and served both as a repository for vocal objections and an increasingly loud call for action. Meanwhile, an anonymous open letter titled "Dear SCAF, you are the counterrevolution" has been making the rounds online, accusing the army of originally supporting Mubarak’s forces and facilitating the work of his police and thugs during the revolution — and afterward.
The army’s treatment of civilians and unarmed protesters is a key source of popular ire. In the months since Mubarak’s abdication, some 5,600 civilians have been prosecuted by the military in what Human Rights activist Heba Morayef describes as "group trials." Dozens of protesters swept up on March 9, when the army violently broke the sit-in and cleared Tahrir Square, killing two protesters "were tried in groups of 25 at a time, in military court cases which only lasted 30 minutes, then all sentenced to up to five years behind bars," according to Morayef.
On that same day, army soldiers also allegedly tortured a number of protesters and activists, subjecting female prisoners to "virginity tests" in which they, according to their testimony, were stripped naked and photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to "virginity checks" and threatened with prostitution charges. Amnesty International spoke for many in Egypt in condemning the military’s actions: "Forcing women to have ‘virginity tests’ is utterly unacceptable. Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women."
To many, the idea of hailing the people’s unity with the army now feels like a bitter joke. In the last month or so, protesters have increasingly chanted, "The people demand the removal of the field marshal" — a reference to Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of the SCAF, and an echo of the iconic slogan of the revolution, "The people demand the removal of the regime."
Even the protest vibe feels familiar. A few days ago, as I prepared to go to a rally demanding the release of activist Tarek Shalaby, who was arrested along with 160 demonstrators outside the Israeli Embassy on May 15, I realized I was preparing myself just as I did before and during the revolution: Comfortable shoes in case we have to run. No house keys. A scarf and plenty of tissues, to deal with the effects of the tear gas. Only this time, it was the army, and not just the police or plain-clothes thugs, I was worried about. (The rally, however, went on peacefully, and Tarek, along with most of those arrested the same evening, was soon sentenced to one year of probation and released.)
All of this mounting tension will come to a head on Friday, May 27, a date activists have labeled "The Second Day of Rage" (the first being January 28). Already, many of the leading activist groups in the country — including the 6th of April movement, Al-Masry Al-Hurr, the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, the ElBaradei campaign, and the Muslim Brotherhood Youth wing — have all announced their intention to take part.
Those planning to attend have a variety of grievances. Some want to protest the treatment of protesters and demand an end to military trials of civilians. Others complain that, while trials against protesters are swift and the sentences often extreme — some demonstrators have been sentenced to 5 years in jail — the army has made no such effort to prosecute the members of the Mubarak entourage, none of whom has been sentenced as of yet. Many also demand the SCAF’s replacement with a civilian presidential council, which would take over the responsibilities of the presidency ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for next September. Still others are protesting the army’s incapacity to stop the sectarian clashes that left 12 dead and scores injured in Cairo in the first week of May. And those with longer memories are protesting the army’s behavior during the revolution, accusing it of facilitating the entry of Mubarak thugs into Tahrir Square and standing idly by during the most violent clashes.
The army is clearly worried. Its latest communiqué, issued May 22nd, accuses "some foreign elements claiming heroism and nationalism of issuing false statements developed by their sick imagination to incite against some members of the SCAF leadership and to create discord between the army and the people." The communiqué goes on to warn that "those external elements" are sending their followers to infiltrate "the free revolutionary demonstrations" in order to instigate a clash between the people and the security forces — a declaration widely seen as a veiled threat, frighteningly reminiscent of excuses that the Mubarak regime would put forth to justify its crackdowns.
But the army is also seeking to deflate popular anger. This week’s announcement that Mubarak will be put on trial can be viewed in this light: a reminder by the army that it is on the revolution’s side, not Mubarak’s.
Amid Egypt’s revolutionary fever, these sorts of last-minute actions have usually failed. Remember Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister? He resigned on March 3rd, just ahead of a massive Friday protest demanding his ouster. The protest went on as planned, with only a few banners added praising the army and the new prime minister. Egyptian activists believe popular protests are their only means of keeping the military regime honest.
Many are expecting big crowds on Friday. As for me, I will be there, in comfortable shoes. Just in case.