Egypt, Freedom and the Military

On March 19 2011 45 million people voted to change the constitution of Egypt and it looks like 65% voted yes: is this the end of militarism in Arab society? Let’s take a quick look at the cultural history of military rule across the region. Ever since the social model that the advent of the Mongols and the Mamlūks ushered into the region, which the Ottomans developed and extended, Middle-East society in general has been ruled by castes that were seen as either racially or class-distinct. The justification for rule was either, implicitly or explicitly, force, in contravention of the principles that Islamic society – which was racially tolerant and highly law-based at the time, had followed until the13th century.

The Turks, with the advent of Gul , Erdogan and the AKP have used the democratic process, which existed but was a junior partner to militarism in Attaturk’s new Turkey, to subjugate the military to civil law. The Iranians, in a struggle for power in our region with the Americans and Israel, as well as with Gulf States particularly in the 70s and 80s, have witnessed a reinforcing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Egypt was there once, with Nasser, but Nasser didn’t have the resources, the cadres, and the know-how to engage in a successful power struggle with the Americans and Israel. Sadat eventually succumbed to a humiliating peace deal with Israel which the people rejected, and has been the cause of considerable discontent ever since as well as the origin of the national emotions that ultimately led to the current revolution.

The Tunisians showed the Arabs the way. The Tunisians have a strong labour movement, compared with Egypt whose labour movement was always persecuted by the Egyptian military. This helped them and will define their future. But the military in Egypt is much more powerful, and I cannot help but feel that despite the ‘secular’ nature of the Egyptian revolution, there is long term unfinished business between the Islamic nature of Egyptian society – led now by the Muslim brotherhood – and the military.

The reason the military did nothing during the revolution and thus allowed the fall of Mubarak was because of two factors. Firstly, Egypt has conscription and the people are very much part of the institution. The bloodbath in Libya is due to fact that Ghaddafi is a true Mamlūk in that he has kept a distinct ethnicity as the basis of the armed forces. Secondly, Muhammad Hussein Tantawi was appointed to his post as chief of armed forces by Mubarak because he is a retiring unaggressive person. Mubarak wasn’t going to appoint a man like Abdel-Hakim Amer – who was forced to take his own life by Nasser – or like the hero of the 1973 war against Israel, Muhammad Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, who had equal standing with Mubarak at the beginning of Mubarak’s rule, and who Mubarak managed to sideline with the help of the Americans.

But can we now say that militarism has ended in Egypt? The constitutional amendments have been controversial. There were calls for the referendum to be postponed or cancelled, from presidential candidates Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, and Mohamed El-Baradei, former chief of the UN nuclear watchdog, who say it is not enough merely to fiddle with the constitution. The youth activists, who spearheaded the pro-democracy revolution, called for a “no” vote on constitutional reform. Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, a member of the youth coalition that helped overthrow Mubarak, said he wanted a new constitution and an extension of the transitional period with the formation of a presidential council. The same reservations were voiced by the Al-Wafd, Tagammu, the Democratic Front and the Nasserist parties. Human rights organisations, judges, constitutional experts and activists have all expressed their disapproval of the amendments, stressing they did not limit the powers of the president. In an article on Counterpunch by Tamer Bahgat and Khalid el-Sherif entitled ‘Egypt Votes’, a clear argument was set out in regard to the need for further changes in the constitution. Ayman Nour, the potential presidential candidate and the founder of el-Ghad Party agrees with all this – saying that the will for change amongst the Egyptian people could not be compromised. He states that the Muslim Brotherhood back the changes because of their power and readiness. The only other sections of society backing the constitutional amendments are the remnants of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) once headed by Mubarak.

What does this mean? That the political process will be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood- leaving everybody else behind? The Muslim Brotherhood has learned much from events in Turkey, and I continue to make comparisons to Turkey because of the ways in which it’s experience has reflected lessons across the region, and which Egypt can continue to learn from in terms of balancing military influence. The struggle of the Turks to subjugate the ‘westernised elite’ which existed in virtue of the power of the military has been fierce. The political struggle in elections and in the courts has been long. The success of the AKP at uncovering plots and conspiracies by the military to overturn progress towards civilian rule has even recently led to a speight of suicides in the top echelons of the military. Turning Turkey from a corrupt military state to a true nation of the people has not been easy, and it has taken the power of the AKP on the street to do this.

The attack on al-Baradei at the polling booth was blamed in the media variously on ‘islamists’ or on rump ‘NDP’ goons. It could have been caused by either due largely to his loud calls for voting ‘no’ to the referendum. One cannot tell, because the Egyptian populace is still ferociously ignorant at its lower levels. The Muslim Brotherhood’s condemnation of this attack and their call for ‘unity’ of Egyptians and ‘peaceful politics’ was also evident in the attack of a Christian Church a few weeks ago – which they have vowed to rebuild. Technically the Muslim Brotherhood back the constitutional amendments because they want to get the political process out into the open soon and not see further delays, which could lead to any outcome – and fears remain that it may lead to a largely unfavorable one that surpasses the people and the revolution’s demands.

They insist that the constitution is open to further amendment in the future. Clearly, Nour’s argument stands in their favour, but we have to ask ourselves – looking at the process that has taken place in Turkey and the ignorance at the base of the Egyptian Street – whether we should trust our idealistic impulses and believe that immediate democracy is possible now, or whether it has to be gained for us by a powerful political group that has power over the Egyptian street and can match the Egyptian military. The Egyptian military dominate the Egyptian economy: no finance minister has ever had the power to look at the accounts of the military, or to interfere in those businesses which the military runs for its own account. So there is a factor other than democracy at stake – economic competition and opportunity – which the Turks have taught us is necessary to become an economy like theirs; an economy which is four times the size of Egypt and with the same population. There are many currents in Egyptian society which have to surface from days of darkness. Despite short-term problems and potential setbacks, Egypt is on the road to becoming a flowering society and nation, and to regaining its position at the centre of the world events. A position it had lost a long time ago.



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