The shotgun marriage between the Egyptian people and the ruling military council has not been an easy ride. After many decades on the sidelines of traditional politics, the army has had trouble adapting to the demands of an open, modern government. It has acted slowly, mysteriously and at times in ways reminiscent of Mubarak’s brutal police force. Its public discourse has been aloof, cryptic and often illiberal.
Flying in the face of the political realities of the new Egypt it has issued decrees asserting a right to control all information published about the armed forces, and on April 10 a military court jailed a blogger for the first time, on charges of insulting the military establishment and spreading false information. Maikel Nabil Sanad, 25, whose gripe with the military predates the uprising against Mubarak, now faces a three-year prison sentence. Human rights organizations are also unhappy, citing the use of military courts for civilians and the abuse of detainees by military police, including compulsory physical inspections or ‘virginity tests’ for young female protesters.
The people, on the other hand, have behaved like the obedient but demanding bride who discovers that marriage to a powerful man is not always a bed of roses. “The people and the army, hand in hand” was one of the defining slogans of the Egyptian revolution. But many of them knew they were allying themselves with a great unknown whose agenda was opaque. Their only recourse has been to come back to Tahrir Square in central Cairo and bellow their demands loud enough for the army command in the distant suburb of Heliopolis to hear them. For the moment the trick seems to have worked.
Since a mass rally on April 8, the largest since Mubarak lost power and retired to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the authorities have taken to heart many of the revolution’s demands. Mubarak was interrogated and will be detained when he is well enough to leave the hospital. His sons, Alaa and Gamal, have joined the group of disgraced ministers holed up in Toura prison awaiting further questioning and possible trial, either for inciting the murder of protesters or for a variety of crimes of financial corruption, such as selling off state land to their friends and cronies at rock-bottom prices. Three other key officials of the Mubarak era — Shoura Council President Safwat el-Sherif, parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour and presidential chief of staff Zakaria Azmi — have finally joined the detainees in recent weeks. A Cairo court gave the people a bonus prize on April 16 when it dissolved Mubarak’s National Democratic Party — the dominant political force since the late 1970s — and assigned all the party’s assets to the state.
The army’s performance since Mubarak’s ouster has been a curious mixture — hypersensitivity about criticism and a conservative ‘law and order’ mindset, coupled with belated political pragmatism and constant reassurances that the generals do not want to stay in power any longer than is necessary. When the time comes for presidential elections, the armed forces will not nominate their own candidate or support anyone else for the top post, the military council says. So far the signs are that the generals are sincere and that their greatest desire is to go back to their comfortable and detached lifestyle as honored defenders of a country that has not fought a serious war in 38 years. Some accounts of the army’s sideline in lucrative economic and industrial enterprises have been ludicrously exaggerated, with wild estimates that it controls up to 40 percent of the national economy, for example. But army officers under Mubarak were definitely a privileged elite with access to well-equipped hospitals, sports clubs and subsidized holiday villas on the sea. Retired officers, as in many countries, could look forward to lucrative sinecures in state companies or in private firms that valued their contacts. They also received shiny new weapons regularly, thanks to the $1.3 billion a year in military aid from the United States.
A question mark hangs over the future of that aid when the new Egypt starts to formulate a foreign policy and takes decisions on how to treat Israel and Gaza. If the people can reassure the army on those two points, by the choices they make in parliamentary elections scheduled for September, the army and the people — at least those that didn’t suffer detention and molestation by the military — might be able to arrange an amicable divorce and go their respective ways with fond memories of their eight-month romance.
Jonathan Wright is managing editor of Arab Media and Society