Africa, Arabs Rise for Rights, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: ‘Army On Its Way Out’

Mike Elkin

CAIRO, Nov 30 2011 (IPS) - Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria went to the polls on Monday in the first parliamentary elections since the January 25 protest movement drove former president Hosni Mubarak from a 30-year grip on power.

Since then, the power vacuum has been filled by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), which sided with the protesters at the beginning of the revolution. When the Mubarak-controlled police force disappeared from the streets, the army took up positions around the country to provide security for demonstrations.

The SCAF, led by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, pledged to provide stability for a transitional government that would prepare for these elections and later presidential elections. But many Egyptians have turned against the so-called guardians of the revolution, claiming that the SCAF has delayed the handover of power to a civilian government.

Recent protests in Tahrir Square called for the army to remove itself from politics and to end nearly 60 years of having military strongmen run Egypt.

“The people in Tahrir feel betrayed by the military and by the political parties who have agreed on a kind of status quo,” said Ayman Fahmy, a 52-year-old doctor who took part in the January 25 protest. “They feel that the army has hijacked their revolution and that they’re not getting the complete change to the system that they wanted.”

The SCAF has not been very open to the public or to the press, issuing statements on its Facebook page and holding only occasional press conferences. Retired general Sameh Seif Elyazal, however, has been a defender of the military in the Egyptian press and many Egyptians view him as an unofficial spokesman for the military, a label that the general rejects.


The 64-year-old former tank commander is chairman of the state-sponsored think tank Al Gomhouria Centre for Political and Security Studies.

“The SCAF definitely made mistakes, although they corrected many of them quickly,” Elyazal told IPS during an interview in his Cairo office. “Not being in contact with the people was a mistake. The SCAF needs to hold a press conference every week so all the facts will be out there and fewer rumors will circulate.

“But on the positive side, the SCAF opened the door for establishing parties. Before there were only a few, and now we have 49 parties and 268 political and religious groups. We released thousands of prisoners who had not been convicted. And let’s not forget that the army went against Mubarak while he was still in power. The SCAF said that they were with the protesters and that they were going to protect them. Had the revolution failed, Mubarak would have executed that group of officers.”

One of the SCAF’s recent announcements, a result of the massive turnout last week in Tahrir Square, was to promise to hold presidential elections at the end of next June. Previously, the military council had not specified a date. For Elyazal, who left the military 15 years ago after serving in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, plus the War of Attrition in between, that date will be the end of a political role for the Egyptian army.

“Once we have presidential elections in June, the army will disappear from political life forever, guaranteed,” he said. “As of Jun. 30, they will go back to their barracks and be regular soldiers again, and that will be it. You won’t see anyone from the army in political life, that’s for sure.”

Regarding the five days last week of violent clashes between protesters and security forces, which left 38 people dead and more than 2,000 injured, plus the additional days of peaceful demonstrations, the former general thinks that political machinations and not popular frustration with the direction of the political process were the driving forces behind the protests.

“First of all, I’m personally against any violence of any kind,” Elyazal said. “What happened was crazy. But Tahrir Square knew elections were coming and they wanted as much power as they could get. Timing was crucial. They did it just two weeks before the election to show the people that they were strong, that they could put pressure on SCAF, and that they were the right people to vote for.

“And we can’t assume that the 50,000, 100,000, 300,000 or half a million people in Tahrir represent the 85 million who live in Egypt. If you go to Facebook and watch television, you will find other people who want the army in control of the country. Last Friday, during the protest in Tahrir, there was another demonstration in favour of the SCAF.”

Speaking of people criticising the military in Tahrir Square, Elyazal said the movement was against holding elections because a working democracy would make the protesters obsolete.

“If we have a parliament, then these members of parliament will talk on behalf of Egyptians,” he said. “So Tahrir Square won’t have much meaning. Who will they be representing? The government and the SCAF will listen to the parliament and not listen to Tahrir Square anymore. There will be no need for unofficial representatives and there will be no role for Tahrir Square.”

Nevertheless, Elyazal said, Egypt must adapt to a new political system and that will take time. “This is the first time we are trying to be democracy,” he said, “People must get used to that. We are a kindergarten democracy.”

Elyazal also said he believed that other countries might be trying to influence events in Egypt as well. While he admitted that he did not have any evidence, the ex-general named Iran due to its desire to lead the region and Israel because five of its spies were caught by Egyptian authorities over the past seven months.

 
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