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Which way now for the Egyptian people?

February 12, 2011

Any day that a dictator is overthrown is a good day, because it demonstrates the ability that people can have to exercise power for themselves. I am thrilled to see people rejoicing with the feeling that they have freed themsevles from a long and vile dictatorship. What is thrilling to see is all of that suppressed energy and humanity breaking out as if for the first time in a very long time.

But the Egyptians are not free of what has really held them down for not just the past thirty years, but for over half a century.

One of the things that worries me is that Egyptians are deluding themselves about the Egyptian military. One frequent narrative that some Egyptians seem to be telling themselves is that “the military is on our side”, “we all have family members in the military”.

But in truth, for the past thirty years and more the Egyptian military has been at the heart of violent repression of the Egyptian people. The Egyptian military is the chief terrorist in Egypt. A group of Egyptian military personnel assassinated Anwar El Sadat and since then the Egyptian military has scapegoated  the Muslim Brotherhood as the source of such violence.

The chief torturer of Egyptian society, now Vice President, Omar Suleiman, who  is rightly despised by Egyptians, perhaps very nearly as much as Mubarak, also holds the rank of general, and at least up till today had de jure control of the Egyptian military.

Further, in the past two weeks there has been much evidence showing how the military has violently tried to undermine the protests. It facilitated the thuggish attacks on the protesters in Tahrir square.  The military allowed the caravan of thugs to slip through the security checkpoints where the military had been patting down all other people going into the square.  Then, by shooting at the protesters and laying down a smoke screen, it held back the protesters who counter-attacked to expel the thugs from the square , and guarded the thugs’ flank as they retreated.

There has also been ample evidence that the military has been conducting massive detentions of protesters and journalists, as well as torturing people at those detention centers.

It should also be mentioned that the current president of Egypt, Mohammed Tantawi, who has also been the longtime defense minister, and the current prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, are all military officials and were all appointed to their highest positions by Mubarak. So one could quite legitimately say that the military/Mubarak dictatorship is still enitrely in power.

Part of Mubarak’s strategy seems to have been clear: attack the protesters, goad them into violence and acting chaotically, and impede journalists from reporting on that violence against the protesters. The military has been absolutely and visibly a player in that strategy. But what has also become clear is that that strategy was not going to work, so the military has moved onto the next phase of its strategy. It has pushed out Mubarak and, knowing that the protesters likely would not swallow Suleiman, as the U.S. would have wanted them to and therefore as the Egyptian military also probably would have wanted them to, it seems they’ve diminished his presence, too. But Egypt does not now have a civilian leadership. Members of the protests are not being incorporated in a new governing system. Rather, what we literally have now is a military dictatorship. No one knows to what extent they will restrict their own dictatorship. In fact, to whatever real extent that it will be curtailed, that will be due to the force exerted on it by the protesters. And their viewing the military as savior, as some of its incredibly naïve and shortsighted self-appointed leaders like Mohammed ElBaradei have presented it, is not going to help free Egypt from over fifty years of a military dictatorship. (It’s also rather naïve and self-aggrandizing for another one of its self-appointed leaders, Google executive Wael Gohnim, to be tweeting “Revolution 2.0: Mission Accomplished”, which happens to include the modish and slightly insulting title of his new book.)

My wager is that right now the military has perhaps successfully bought itself some more time to try to maneuver into place the best government for itself that it can get. Well, that’s probably not even a wager. That’s probably just a matter of course. Of course, the military wants to maintain its power.

In turn, some protesters, however, are thankfully sanguine about the military’s role and are unwaveringly maintaining that their demands, such as for a civilian government, have not been met.

But throughout the recent upheaval, the military has executed a mostly successful public relations campaign. While standing over protesters and watching them as they were beaten by thugs or while themselves imprisoning and torturing the protesters, the military has nevertheless presented itself , particularly with the help of uncritical Western media, as having nobly stood neutral and foresworn violence.

It is, however, overwhelmingly hard to believe that the military, which for decades, including the last few weeks, has been at the heart of violent repression of the Egyptian people, has miraculously and inexplicably transformed itself into something that will put the interests it has in maintaining its power to the side and cooperate with the Egyptian people in forming a new more just order. Egypt’s new military dictator, now named Tantawi rather than Mubarak, has, and just like his predecessor, been a staunch enemy of any increase of freedom in Egyptian society. So all of us must pay attention to see how the current regime treats those protesters who see the military for what it is—and, even given what I have said, there are many who do—they who might not rest content and who might not walk away from the barricades.

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