James M. Dorsey: Egyptian military interests clash with efforts to dismantle remnants of the Mubarak regime


Anti-government protests in Egypt have crossed yet another red line.

Five months after protesters forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign from 30 years in office, the country’s new rulers, the military, are the target of their ire.

The military took over from Mr. Mubarak with the endorsement of the protesters and a pledge to lead the country to free and fair elections within six months.

Protesters credited the military with remaining on the side lines during clashes between opponents and supporters of Mr. Mubarak in the weeks before the president’s departure.

That honeymoon is now over and increasingly is turning into a violent quarrel. For much of the post-Mubarak months, the military enjoyed the benefit of the doubt and was largely exempted as a target of the protests. For its part, the military effectively sought to ensure that it remained off limits.

That attempt has clearly failed as a result of mounting criticism of its handling of the post-Mubarak transition and increasing doubts about its sincerity in wanting to guide the country towards real democracy.

For two days running, demonstrators have marched from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the headquarters of Egypt's military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, at the defence ministry. Similar angry demonstrations took place in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and the canal city of Suez.

The protesters’ anger focuses on the slow pace of change, the continued use of military tribunals to try civilians and the military’s alleged reluctance to bring officials of the Mubarak regime to trial.

Tension is increasing as a result of the government’s firm response to the protests. Military vehicles and barbed wire surround the defence ministry. Military police used tasers, batons and teargas to drive protesters back.

Adding fuel to the fire, was the appearance of men in civilian clothes, who attacked the protesters with stones, petrol bombs, knives and clubs in a seeming replay of the clashes that took place with Mubarak loyalists early this year in the run-up to the ousting of the president.

Some 231 people were injured in the clashes.

A statement by the military praising its supporters for forming a human shield to keep protesters away from the military headquarters further fuelled charges that the military was reverting to tactics employed by the Mubarak regime.

Underlying the protesters’ anger is mounting concern that the military is seeking to engineer a transition that ensures that it remains beyond civilian control, retains its economic perks and is guaranteed the right to intervene in politics whenever it deems it necessary.

By demonstrating against the military, protesters are seeking to disrupt the military’s perceived attempt to exploit differences among the protesters that drove Mr. Mubarak from power and strengthen that segment of public opinion that still gives it the benefit of the doubt and is increasingly growing protest weary.

Many of those that still believe the military may stick to its pledge to guide the country to democracy increasingly see protests as a traffic hazard and an obstacle to getting Egypt economically back on track.

Nonetheless, the protests pose a threat to the military. Many Egyptians have until now been willing to set aside a widespread belief that the military benefitted as much from corrupt practices during the Mubarak regime as did the president and his associates.

That residual goodwill and willingness to ignore the military’s role under Mr. Mubarak could evaporate if in contrast to the anti-Mubarak demonstrations early this year, the military increasingly is forced into clashes with the protesters.

The military, in a bid to turn the tables on the demonstrators, has in recent days accused the April 6 Movement, one of the key youth groups behind the anti-Mubarak protests, of trying to drive a wedge between the people and the army.

That is unlikely to go down well with youth groups who feel that they have been cut out of deliberations with the government and the military on how best to move the transition to a more open society forward.

In an angry retort, the movement rejected the military’s allegations as “misleading allegations” and warned that “we will be the last to leave Tahrir Square, either alive with our heads held high after triumphantly achieving the demands of the Egyptian people or as martyrs for the sake of God and the nation.”

The criticism of the April 6 Movement is in stark contrast to the praise that Field Marshal Mohamad Hussain Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, heaped on his country’s youth on Friday in his first public address since Mr. Mubarak’s departure in February.

Youth groups fear that the military is seeking to marginalize them in cooperation with Egypt’s Islamists, who were slow to support the anti-Mubarak protests and have since sought to capitalize on the fact that they are far better organized than those who drove the president from office.

Things could come to a head next Friday - just days before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan and the opening of the August 3 trial of Mr. Mubarak on charges that he was responsible for some 900 deaths during the protests against his regime.

One trigger could be a decision by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s main Islamist grouping, to organize a "million-man" march on Tahrir Square on Friday in support of its vision for the future of Egypt. The Brotherhood is expected to decide whether to call for the march in the next few days.

Tensions could escalate even if the Brotherhood opts not to take to the streets, if Mr. Mubarak’s trial is postponed on grounds that he is too ill to stand trial. Doubts about the former president’s state of health have been fuelled by contradictory reports about whether Mr. Mubarak, who reportedly suffers from cancer and heart disease, recently slipped into coma or not.

The military’s efforts to secure its position and at the same time ensure that it is seen as the force leading Egypt to a more democratic society is putting it increasingly between a rock and a hard place. The military has yet to demonstrate that it has the political finesse and diplomatic skills to navigate a situation in which its interests are increasingly seen as at odds with what originally drove Egyptians into Tahrir Square to rid themselves of the yoke of autocratic rule.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])