The Middle East Channel

Violence and the Egyptian military

Egypt’s military regime has cracked down on protesters with increasing intensity over the past month. Many in the West wonder how this is possible in post-Mubarak Egypt, and whether this situation will continue. All actors, including the military, must consider that despite high levels of support for the military among Egyptians, there are even higher ...

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt’s military regime has cracked down on protesters with increasing intensity over the past month. Many in the West wonder how this is possible in post-Mubarak Egypt, and whether this situation will continue. All actors, including the military, must consider that despite high levels of support for the military among Egyptians, there are even higher levels of opposition to violence against civilians.

Even before the revolution, Gallup data showed Egyptians universally reject violence against civilians — whether perpetrated by military or non-military actors. The 97 percent of Egyptians who reject individual attacks against civilians, for example, is one of the highest percentages worldwide.

Egyptians’ confidence in the military, however, has also been high. Gallup polling in Egypt since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak shows this is still the case: Gallup surveys in December 2011 show that 88 percent of Egyptians currently express confidence in the military. At the same time, 91 percent of Egyptians also think that continued protests are a bad thing for the country, while 9 percent believe continued protests are a good thing.

Egyptians’ ongoing confidence in the military establishment and their lack of support for continued protests may be perplexing. How can Egyptians be against violence against civilians, and yet express such confidence in a military that is subjecting civilians to violence?

Public opinion against continued protests does not necessarily conflict with strong feelings against violence. Egyptians could very well consider protests a bad thing for the country, while defending the right of those same protesters to protest freely without being subjected to violence. Gallup’s latest figures show that 94 percent of Egyptians said they would agree to include a provision on "freedom of speech" in a new constitution for Egypt. The majority of Egyptians consider freedom of speech a very important right — even if they do not necessarily agree with what is being said.

Egyptians’ confidence in the military is more difficult to explain. To partially clarify this discrepancy, some commentators have offered that Egyptians at large distinguish between the military and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). There is little evidence to support that premise. Eighty-nine percent of Egyptians surveyed in December express confidence in the SCAF, essentially equal to the 88 percent expressing confidence in the military.

What may be more important to consider is how Egyptians consume information, and the means by which they are informed. Egyptians at large have firsthand experience with some public institutions, which leads them to form their opinions directly or via close friends and family. For example, it is unsurprising if a majority of Egyptians lack confidence in the police — because of the widespread presence of the police all over the country, most Egyptians have personal, direct experience with the police force on a regular basis. For other public institutions, however, Egyptians rely on media rather than more direct sources of information.

Some might argue that websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and the Internet in general, have been rife with information about the military’s violence against civilian protesters. Public opinion in Egypt is likely to shift on that basis, due to Egyptians’ propensity to abhor violence against civilians. Such an argument, however, is flawed. Gallup data show that despite the continuing myth that the Egyptian revolution began as a "Facebook revolution," 8 percent of Egyptians relied on Facebook or Twitter to get their news on the nationwide protests that led to Mubarak’s downfall. Even among protesters during January and February, 17 percent reported Internet access in their homes.

Egyptians do not get the narrative of what is happening in the country from such online sources. Rather, it comes from other media, particularly state television. Al Jazeera was also a source of protest news for a significant majority of Egyptians, but that majority (63 percent) is substantially less than the majority (81 percent) who said in March and April that they received their news about Egypt’s transition from state television. State television is free, which means it is likely to be used far more frequently, as well as by more people, than satellite sources. Moreover, 59 percent of Egyptians are confident in the accuracy of the state media, according to Gallup surveys in December. Whether the state is actually accurate is immaterial — the majority of Egyptians at least perceive it to be.

As more and more people become involved in standoffs with the military regime, word is likely to spread among the public, whether state media accurately reports the events. At one point, Mubarak’s government was popular, but it eventually became so unpopular that the majority of Egyptians supported the uprising against his regime.

The Egyptian military regime should not take Egyptians’ support for granted. If news of violence against civilians spreads, whether due to increased incidents of violence or to the ability of protesters to effectively disseminate online sources in a grassroots manner, then popular support for the military regime could drop as it did for Mubarak’s administration.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is Senior Practice Consultant and Senior Analyst at Gallup.

H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

  Twitter: @hahellyer

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