Sameh Attallah was among Egypt’s “silent majority” who trusted the army to make way for civilian rule after protesters ousted Hosni Mubarak in February. For nine months, he stayed home when others hit the street demanding swifter reform.
That has changed. Now convinced that the ruling military council wants to cling to power, he joined protests on Friday that led to violence which has cost 33 lives.
“I was among those who did not protest after Mubarak stepped down and the army promised to protect the revolution. But I must say now the army looks to be robbing people of their revolution,” the 29-year-old said in Tahrir Square, surrounded by debris and the whiff of teargas after three days of clashes.
For many, trust in the army has evaporated. Security has not been restored and unrest has blossomed, with Egypt’s first free parliamentary election for decades due to start on Nov. 28.
Instead of standing above the political fray, the army-picked cabinet has enraged politicians by proposing principles for the new constitution that would shield the army from civilian oversight and give it broad national security powers.
Plenty of Egyptians still give the army the benefit of the doubt. Some even rue Mubarak’s fall. Yet the army’s support may be eroding, even as it seeks to manage its exit from government while retaining its privileges and political influence.
“It’s a fierce struggle for power along ideological, religious and social lines, and the military is trying to play the game to maintain its privileges. It’s a struggle for power, resources, turf and authority,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.
“What has happened in the last few days represents the end of the honeymoon between the military and many Egyptians.”
Friday’s protest began as a largely Islamist affair, with demonstrators demanding the army scrap the constitutional principles. Youths broadened it to target the ruling military council and its leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
What incensed many ordinary Egyptians was the sight of army-backed police baton-charging protesters in Tahrir Square − just as the police did during the anti-Mubarak revolt.
‘Tantawi Is Mubarak’
“Right after Mubarak’s ouster, we all felt the military council was supporting and protecting us, but the injuries and deaths we’re seeing now, which they are condoning, means they are complicit,” said 26-year-old Ahmed Hassan.
“The people want to topple the Field Marshal,” is a common protester refrain. Walls are scrawled with “Tantawi is Mubarak.”
The army says it was only trying to protect the nearby Interior Ministry, not to clear protesters from Tahrir, and that it will stick to the transition timetable, holding elections on time and returning to barracks once a president is elected.
But calls for a speedier timetable are growing louder. The military agenda suggests a presidential election may not take place till late 2012 or early 2013, leaving the army with sweeping executive powers until then.
Many politicians and many in Tahrir Square want a presidential election by April, immediately after elections to the upper and lower house of parliament are completed.
So far the army has not budged. Instead, it seems to be betting that it can ride out the protests.
“The army will not interfere with the protesters in Tahrir and neither will elections be delayed. This violence and havoc will die out on its own, gradually,” said one army officer said, dismissing the impact violence could have on public opinion.
This sanguine approach may rely too heavily on support for the army beyond the hotbeds of Cairo and other cities. Yet, the mood may be shifting in these smaller towns and rural areas, typically places where politically conservative views prevail.
Mohamed Fadl, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the agricultural town of Mutubis, said the army had broadly played a “good role, with some reservations” but said he feared it now wanted the kind of influence the Turkish military once enjoyed. “We don’t accept that,” he said.
One Western diplomat said the military had three core interests to protect: ensuring its leaders would not end up in court like Mubarak, shielding army economic interests that range from arms factories to plants making household goods, and guaranteeing the military’s privileges and status.
“Leaving power would be the best means of preserving those interests, but leaving power without the right guarantees would leave those interests exposed. That is their big problem: their interests will always be vulnerable,” the diplomat said.
But he said the army needed to quit before anger “pollutes the relationship” with the public more generally.
Despite the unrest, few expect the army will delay next Monday’s vote, in part because that would likely inflame the public further, angering the influential Muslim Brotherhood and other parties demanding that the transition proceed.
Political analyst Ammar Aly Hassan said postponing the vote was a “poisoned chalice” for the army council.
Egypt’s political dynamics are likely to change after the new parliament is elected. So far, the only place Egyptians have been able to make their voices heard is on the street.
But parliament’s powers are limited. It will choose the assembly that draws up the constitution and will have a legislative role, but the army council will still exercise its “presidential powers” to appoint the prime minister and cabinet.
Nevertheless, the assembly will carry a moral weight that the army council might find hard to ignore, if it can muster the unity to speak with one voice.
“We cannot underestimate the fragmentation and the huge division among political factions which allowed the military to do what they did over the last few days and weeks,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian analyst at Britain’s Durham University.
Modern Turkey has often been held up as a possible model for Egypt. For decades, the Turkish military intervened in politics, seeing itself as the guardian of the secular constitution. Only in recent years have the army’s powers slowly been rolled back.
Egypt’s protesters want their army to return to barracks far more swiftly. But the struggle may take time.
“Institutions were almost ruined during the Mubarak regime. Now, various political and social groups are positioning themselves and turmoil will be the name of the game in the next 10 years,” said Gerges of the London School of Economics.