What can prevent state failure?

Downtown Cairo is once again a battlefield, and this time, the military is not just a silent facilitator, but an active participant — beating, dragging, shooting, and assaulting civilians. The latest round of brutality has led us to not only question the military’s handling of the transition period, but also the nature of the modern Egyptian state, which is associated with a strong military.

We are at a juncture whereby the revolution has begun to challenge the centrality of the military to the modern state, a legacy dating back to Mohammed Ali’s rule.

When the ruling military junta presented its own version of recent events at a press conference on Monday, the generals, yet again, raised the terrifying prospect of “state failure,” saying that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the army are the sole protectors of the state and everything they do is justified in the name of preventing its dissolution at the hands of those who want to undermine it.

This self-assigned supremacy is rapidly losing even the pretense of legitimacy.

The army’s violence and cruelty has been thoroughly documented by eyewitnesses, in photos and videos. We will not soon forget the image of two soldiers dragging a woman, half naked, by her clothes while a third stands ready to stomp on her chest. When skeptics condemn descriptions of soldiers resorting to violence, they cite how the army was provoked, or how paid infiltrators are allegedly plotting chaos and instability for Egypt. But what can provoke an organized professional army to engage in disorganized, unprofessional street fighting against civilian protesters?

The SCAF claims that “thuggery” and “chaos” have marred the purity of the 25 January revolution. After watching the events of the past five days, we have to agree. The state’s prestige has been irreparably undermined by soldiers urinating on protesters from atop a government building, sexually assaulting women, throwing furniture and flatware from government offices, making lewd sexual gestures, and turning sites of heritage and democracy — such as the Egyptian Museum and the parliament building — into temporary torture centers.

The chant “Say it, out loud, don’t be scared, the council has to go,” which reverberated across the square during last month’s fighting between police and protesters, is the rallying cry of Egypt’s revolution. Egypt’s revolutionaries, even the statists among them, perceive that the SCAF has failed at running the country’s transition. They demand not only their return to the barracks, but a reconsideration of their role in Egypt’s affairs.

Egypt’s military should not define the state. It’s part of a regime that people revolted against. Claiming to side with the revolution, it took a moment to distance itself from Mubarak’s regime on 11 February, but it couldn’t dupe the revolutionaries for long. Its practices speak loudly to its association with the toppled regime: It embarked on systematic violence against protesters not long after the toppling of Mubarak on 11 February when it dispersed a sit-in by force on 26 February; it incarcerated vocal activists; it put a massive number of civilians on military trial; it threatened the media; and, most notably, it attempted to monopolize the truth.

If the junta assumes the burden of representing Egypt’s military as a whole, and of attempting to manage the affairs of state, there are issues that the generals may not be ready to deal with. Once in the spotlight, how long may they act with impunity? The revolutionaries are saying that the time has come to reconfigure the council’s power.

A reconfiguration will require concessions. Coming to terms with the necessity of this political process — not a strong military hand — is what will prevent state failure. The SCAF should rid itself of the burden of being the sole representative of the revolution and the state. Only the revolution should choreograph the future of the state, while navigating the threats of counter-revolution.

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