Interim or not, military should not rule alone

A population does not pay with the lives of its citizens to rid itself of one authoritarian, unaccountable form of rule to have it replaced by another of the same ilk, no matter how “interim” its status.

As the referendum for constitutional amendments approaches, questions still persist over the current form of rule in Egypt, made all the more urgent by substantive reports of torture by the army and swift, draconian military trials of civilian protesters in the murkiest of circumstances.   

It was never a demand of the Egyptian protesters that military rule govern the interim period after the ouster of the Mubarak regime. The demand was quite clear: an interim presidential council. Yes, there would be representatives from the armed forces on the council, but never was outright military rule called for nor welcomed.

When the Egyptian military decided to finally side with the protesters against the old regime (after turning a blind eye during the infamous “Battle of the Camel” in Tahrir on 2 February) the majority of Egyptians welcomed their stance, if only to decide the outcome once and for all and to foreclose the possibility of impending bloodshed.  

People were quick to welcome the army’s stance, as the last remaining institution they could still have faith in. And even though none more than the army – which remains a state within a state – benefited under Mubarak, a rapprochement was quickly developed to bring it on the side with the people, with many willing to forgo past indiscretions.

Admittedly, the armed forces is still popular now, with many refusing to believe that it could do wrong, a virginal institution with ideals forged at the altar of the people’s defense that are beyond reproach. The reality, however, is far more disconcerting.   

Lest we forget, this is an institution that sentenced a young man to six months via a military tribunal for having the temerity to create a group on Facebook that answered queries on conscription (a rite of passage for every Egyptian male). I once asked someone from the military why this young man was arrested, tried and imprisoned over such a farcical charge and his response was “It’s not that he did anything, but we can’t open the door for anyone to speak about the army.”

It was well known amongst Egyptian journalists that writing about the esteemed armed forces in any manner pre-revolution came with its perils. Writing about it, even praising it, was off-limits, because divulging unsanctioned information about the the army was verboten.

Come the revolution and how things have changed. The military has its own Facebook page now. And yet that young man still languishes in jail. It is on a PR offensive to keep people onside and it’s succeeding.

And yet the number of civilians being charged in military tribunals and sentenced (sometimes within three days) has increased exponentially. The first clash with protesters took place in the early hours of 26 February, when army soldiers, military police and forces in balaclavas charged protesters in Tahrir and near parliament with cattle prods for refusing to leave. Many were beaten and one activist, Amr al-Beheiry, was arrested. Within three days he had been put on trial and sentenced to five years. First he was charged with possession of a weapon, but when other activists who were with him announced that he had been carrying nothing of the sort, the charge was then changed to assaulting an army officer.

There is no appeals process in military courts. An amendment to the military penal code in 2007 allowed an appeal within 60 days but only on procedural grounds. However, a recent spate of arrests have shown that lawyers have even found it difficult to get any actual face-time with those they represent.

On 9 March, military soldiers and anti-protest civilians descended on Tahrir Square, beat protesters, and arrested hundreds of people. There were countless beatings, and those kept overnight were subjected to torture, being beaten, whipped and electrocuted. Videos have already surfaced online showing the extent of this torture. Those who are still incarcerated have been put on trial for “thuggery”.

Among those “thugs” were an actor who went to Tahrir during the revolution with makeup and a clown nose, and a long-haired singer who was often seen in Tahrir with his acoustic guitar putting chords to protester chants. His hair was shorn off and whip marks and cattle prod welts crisscrossed his back.

And returning to the “virginal” nature of the army, in accounts given by the detainees involved, females were stripped naked, called whores and then were subjected to a “virginity” test by someone present. Anywhere else that would be called sexual assault.

And on 16 March, a small group marched to the Egyptian museum to protest the army's practice of torture. They were set upon by a group of soldiers and at least two were arrested with the rest chased away.

The role of the media in all this has left a lot to be desired, with the majority more than willing to publish the usual spin of events that comes from army announcements on such incidents, which is as follows: Thugs attack protesters, army steps in to defend protesters from thugs and arrests them. It is never mentioned that the detained thugs are in actual fact the protesters and the real thugs are assisting in the crackdown.

What’s as disturbing is the recent resort to force on the part of civilians to crackdown on something they disagree with, as happened with the International Women’s Day march in Tahrir 8 March, that was attacked by people who believed the protesters shouldn’t have been there. It doesn’t bode well if this instinct – cultivated in the last days of the old regime – is encouraged and permitted.   

Despite these events, many still hesitate to accept reality. When journalist Rasha Azab posted on her blog an account of what happened to her on 9 March, many respondents attacked her for trying to drive a wedge between the army and the people. Others flatly refused to believe her, accusing her of making the whole thing up.

So the army may have the majority onside for now, but that by no means sanctions its unseemly actions one bit. They may be riding a crest of popularity but people did not give up their lives from 25 January onwards for more of the same.

Abdel-Rahman Hussein is a journalist and blogs at Sibilant Egypt.

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