Long live Egypt’s Supreme Council

Long live Egypt’s Supreme Council

Many Egyptians are expressing concerns about the deployment by the ruling Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of the very same political rhetoric previously employed by the Mubarak regime, despite the SCAF’s claim that it is maintaining “neutrality” between “popular” forces; a “neutrality” that it has failed to demonstrate on all fronts.

Indeed, Egyptians who want to transform their uprising into a veritable revolution have responded to the ruling SCAF by refining their definition of the identity of the armed forces. If the famous cry of the anti-Mubarak uprising enjoined the army to stand with the people against the regime, the current cry cleverly differentiates between the SCAF and the army, so that the army rank and file continue to be invoked by the revolutionaries as being on the side of the people – while the SCAF is presented as the political antagonist who seeks to maintain the Mubarak regime with some reforms, albeit without Mubarak.

The army and the revolution

Schisms between the “army” and the revolutionaries started even before the fall of Mubarak, when demonstrations were infiltrated by army soldiers who, we were told, were unknown people, most probably Mubarak state security goons, who allegedly “stole” and donned army uniforms. Evidence of military arrests and torture of demonstrators, including reported stories of “virginity” tests performed on arrested women demonstrators, were later confirmed by military officers. Moreover, Egyptian demonstrators are demanding that all people arrested since the uprising be tried in civilian rather than military courts – and that the continued use of torture by the army be immediately stopped.

This notwithstanding, many Egyptian revolutionaries (though not all) have insisted on ignoring these reported stories of army abuse – which were also verified by international human rights groups – in the interest of maintaining solidarity with the army, especially as the military top brass had initially used a rhetoric of non-intervention and “neutrality” between a corrupt dictatorial regime, presided over by a member of their own ranks for 30 years, and the Egyptian people. Indeed, the rhetoric of the army leadership since the fall of Mubarak has been that the army was the party that all along “protected” and still “protects” the revolution.

The nineteen-member SCAF is presided over by the former minister of defence under Mubarak, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who, along with Egyptian Army Chief of Staff General Sami ‘Anan, spent much of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising last January in Washington DC attending “meetings” with US officials (‘Anan was already in the US when the uprising broke and Tantawi joined him later). Tantawi has consistently said that SCAF would only remain in power for the transitional period until all preparations – political, juridical, and constitutional – had been made ready for democratic elections to be held, and that in the interim, such preparations would be made by a civilian cabinet responsive to the SCAF’s regulations.

While the revolutionaries toppled the first cabinet left over from Mubarak days, which the army kept after Mubarak’s fall, and brought Isam Sharaf in as an “uncorrupt” prime minister on the side of the people, Sharaf’s performance in the past four months has lost him much credibility among the revolutionaries, in no small measure on account of his refusal to question the dictates of the SCAF, which has been reticent to allow transformative changes that would signal a real regime change.

Sharaf thus has consistently appointed ministers in his government who are tainted by their previous service to the Mubarak regime. This includes a number of the ministers he appointed just last week to his second cabinet – though none of them were members of the now dissolved National Democratic Party that ruled under Mubarak – a reshuffle brought about by pressure exerted by the revolutionaries who have been staging a sit-in in Tahrir Square since July 8. Indeed, his ministry of interior has continued to attack the revolutionaries shamelessly.

Buying off the SCAF

In the meantime, the United States and Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates as a subsidiary to both, have kept up the pressure on the SCAF not to try Mubarak, and to obfuscate the trials of many corrupt regime aides, despite the zeal with which parts of the judiciary system have been pursuing them on numerous criminal and corruption charges. The Saudis have granted four billion dollars to the SCAF, while the UAE gave a three billion dollar package of grants and loans to help the SCAF’s efforts to resist the same amount of money offered by the much-hated International Monetary Fund, which is opposed by the Egyptian revolutionaries.

While Mubarak’s Egypt would never have said “no” to the omnipotent IMF, which, along with the World Bank and USAID, has wreaked havoc on the poor of Egypt for more than three and a half decades, the Egypt of today is granted more leeway by the United States government, which recognises the country as the central frontline state with the mobilised revolutionary masses of the Arab World. The United States made concessions to Taiwan and South Korea in the 1950s and 1960s, which allowed their development of a national capitalism unfettered by competition from imperial capital. These concessions, denied to all other “Third World” countries, were made in order for the South Korean and Taiwanese economies to offer a more prosperous model than their communist neighbours, thus ensuring that they would not “fall” to international communism.

Indeed, attempts by other “Third World” countries to block imperial capital penetration of their national economies resulted in CIA-sponsored coups and, in a number of cases, outright US invasions in the same period. A similar logic is working here. It is American fear that the Egyptian uprising could become a transformative revolution that would become a beacon for neighbouring Arab countries in revolt that prompted the US to grant Egypt this special dispensation. It is this strategic concession that has allowed the UAE money to substitute for the IMF loans.

Plus ça change: The persistence of Mubarak’s methods

This money, the promise of more funds, and continued US support for the SCAF to resist change and block the demands of the revolutionaries is said to have emboldened the members of the SCAF to deploy, with little embarrassment, Mubarak’s same political rhetoric of delegitimising the opposition in order to stem the tide of the rising demands for political, economic, and juridical reforms.

While established Egyptian journalists and opposition figures are being referred to as “subversives” and “foreign” elements, the revolutionaries themselves who occupy Tahrir Square are being delegitimised as “not the same revolutionaries” who led the uprising against Mubarak, but rather as paid foreign agents and goons or “baltajiyyah” – the term used to describe Mubarak’s thugs who descended on Tahrir Square before Mubarak’s fall. This is not unlike the rhetoric used by Mubarak who identified the post-January 28 demonstrators as “infiltrators” who were “not the same” demonstrators who staged the initial 25 January demonstrations.

Indeed, the goons who attacked the marchers a few days ago in the Cairo neighbourhood of ‘Abasiyya, injuring hundreds, have been identified by a member of the SCAF as “popular committees” of which no one had heard before his declaration. Indeed, Field Marshal Tantawi himself has identified the goons as “the people” of Egypt, who stopped the demonstrators from reaching the ministry of defence without interference by the SCAF, despite the presence of army soldiers in the neighbourhood who blocked the marchers with barbed wire and stood by idly as goons began to attack them.

Tantawi’s assertion, however, is contradicted by the facts, including an investigation by journalist Yousry Fouda, who anchors the popular talk show Akhir Kalam. Fouda revealed that one of the leaders of the ‘Abasiyya goons was indeed not even from ‘Abassiya but from Ayn Shams, and was a member of Mubarak’s Republican Guard and a regular pro-Mubarak and pro-SCAF demonstrator who even wrote a song praising the deposed dictator.

A return to Egyptian anti-Arab chauvinism

These facts aside, this delegitimising effort by the SCAF zeroed in on what it perceived would be a weak link, by targeting an Egyptian-Palestinian poet who supported the uprising. In doing so, the SCAF hoped to delegitimise the revolutionaries as “foreigners”, while simultaneously reaffirming the Sadatist-Mubarakist isolation of Egypt from its Arab surroundings, even though the uprising ended in favour of seeking reintegration with the Arab world.

Born and brought up in Cairo, Tamim Barghouthi, son of prominent Egyptian novelist and literature professor Radwa ‘Ashour, was singled out on national television by General Hasan al-Ruwayni, a member of the SCAF and Commander of the Central Military Region. Al-Ruwayni saw Barghouthi speak in favour of the revolution on a television talk show and described the poet as someone who “spoke with a foreign accent and has a foreign name and his looks are not the looks of Egyptians”. In fact, Barghouthi, whose father is the prominent Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouthi, speaks the Egyptian dialect which is native to him.

When the TV journalist clarified to al-Ruwayni the identity of the poet, al-Ruwayni attacked his Palestinian identity with such Sadatist and Mubarakist anti-Arab Egyptian chauvinism that one would have thought Mubarak was still at the helm. Al-Ruwayni declared that “the party that undertook national reconciliation for the Palestinians is Egyptian … Egypt has not exhausted its 86 million people … Egypt has great people …” Clearly Al-Ruwayni is only upset that an Egyptian who is part Palestinian is “interfering” in Egyptian affairs. A sentiment he never expressed with regards to constant US statements about the country, much less actual US intervention and interference in the country’s affairs.

Such anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab venom from a member of the SCAF, one would think, would have immediately resulted in his dismissal or even court martial for instigating anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian hatred among Egyptians and urging Egyptians to uphold Sadatist Egyptian chauvinism and isolationism from their Arab milieu. A call that could be seen as threatening Egyptian national unity and cohesion if not national security, yet none of his colleagues on the council complained or criticised him publicly for his statements.

Pushing back

About 300 prominent Egyptian intellectuals issued a statement defending Barghouthi and condemning Al-Ruwayni’s attack on him. Pro-uprising journalist Yousry Fouda also wrote a scathing editorial that attacked al-Ruwayni, who has since expanded his anti-Palestinian tirade into a full-scale attack on all political forces seeking revolutionary changes in the country. Thus, the April 6 movement, which was one of the leading organisers of the massive demonstrations that led to the downfall of Mubarak, was accused by al-Ruwayni of being recipients of foreign funding. He also claimed that its members were trained in Serbia and that the pro-democracy movement Kifayah (“Enough!”) was a foreign movement.

Indeed, Military Communiqué number 69, issued by the SCAF last week, named the April 6 movement as pursuing a strategy that aims at “creating discord between the army and the people”. One of Kifayah‘s leaders, George Ishaq, has challenged al-Ruwayni, who is clearly the SCAF’s front man in charge of delegitimising the revolutionaries, to produce material evidence for his defamatory claim, and that if he is in possession of such evidence that it would be incumbent upon him to hand it over to the public prosecutor. Leaders of the April 6 movement are seeking to sue Al-Ruwayni in court, but his military colleagues claim that he cannot be sued in a civilian court and that he could only be subject to a military court. Indeed, Kifayah and April 6 have both decided to sue the SCAF for defamation.

Leading dissident intellectual Professor Hasan Naf’ah has challenged the SCAF in an editorial to issue a list of all foreign-funded organisations and their sources of funding, and demanded that the SCAF desist from making unfounded accusations against leading revolutionary movements. He added that the so-called neutrality that the SCAF claimed to have followed between the goons, which the SCAF reinvented as “popular committees” or later as the “people”, and the marchers who were heading to the ministry of defence was no neutrality at all, but instead provided aid to the counter-revolution.

It is noteworthy that no one in the Egyptian press has so far reminded General al-Ruwayni that it is the Egyptian army, including the SCAF itself, who are on the payroll of a foreign country – namely the largest anti-democratic force in the world, the United States of America – which supported and upheld the very dictatorship whose overthrow the army did not help with but rather maintained “neutrality” towards, and that it is the US and the Saudis who are the leaders of the counter-revolution in Egypt.

Indeed in his most recent editorial in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Yawm, famous Egyptian novelist ‘Ala Al-Aswani assailed the SCAF for not meeting a single demand of the uprising that brought Mubarak down, and finally questioning whether the SCAF is indeed “on the side of the revolution” at all.

The US and the SCAF

In the meantime, another member of the SCAF, General Muhammad al-‘Assar, who is also assistant minister of defence, is in Washington DC attending “regular” meetings held twice a year for the past decade with his US counterparts for the purpose of “reviewing relations between the two countries”. At the same time, the US Commander of AFRICOM, General Carter F Ham, visited Cairo for two days of meetings with members of the SCAF, including Field Marshal Tantawi himself, to discuss security issues in Africa, especially Libya, and US-Egyptian “training cooperation”.

AFRICOM is one of nine Unified Combatant Commands of the US Department of Defense. As one of six that are regionally focused, it is devoted solely to Africa but excludes Egypt from its purview, as the latter is included in US Central Command, though AFRICOM “consults” with Egypt on “African security”.

AFRICOM was created by the Bush Jr administration through a presidential order in 2007. It became fully operational at the end of 2008 and since then has sought to base itself on the African continent with much opposition led by South Africa. It has so far maintained its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, though rumor has it that US President Barack Obama’s help in bombing Libya has much to do with the expectation that the so-called Libyan revolutionary leadership will host AFRICOM headquarters soon after its takeover of the whole country.

As the US military works to constrain and contain Egypt regionally, American efforts also continue on the domestic front. Recently installed US ambassador to Egypt Ann Patterson has revealed that the US has already granted $105 million to various non-governmental organisations to “assist” with their participation in the political life of the country, something that many Egyptians oppose. This opposition prompted SCAF’s General al-‘Assar to claim that such funds led to some “confusion in the Egyptian street”, when in fact there was no confusion at all, but rather much clarity about the US role in the country during the Mubarak regime and since his downfall. Recipients of US money, of course, are yet to be labelled by the SCAF as traitors or agents of a foreign power.

Follow the money

With the increasing chorus against the rule of the SCAF from intellectuals and revolutionaries, the major ally of the SCAF in the country remains the super-rich business class – which includes secularists and Islamists – which has so far vehemently refused to accede to the demand for a minimum wage for Egyptians (a mere 1200 Egyptian pounds a month, about US$200). It is joined by the Muslim brotherhood and various Salafist groups, which have threatened to end the sit-in in Tahrir Square by force Friday July 29, with a massive show of support for the military. On July 26, an agreement was finally reached between a number of forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, on five demands to be made at the demonstrations on Friday 29th by all in order to maintain the “unity” of Tahrir Square.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the revolutionary demonstrations late in the game and after much hesitation, may be looking for a wider role, now that the US administration has decided to speak to it openly (which has impelled it to refuse to join the July 8 sit-in). The Muslim Brothers may look like strange bedfellows with the SCAF and the business class, but if you follow the money back to Saudi Arabia and the United States, they are not at all. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has threatened to have President Obama veto the new conservative Republican resolution to stop US aid to Egypt if the Islamists are elected, as it would interfere with her foreign policy strategy in the country.

While much of this does not augur well for the future of the uprising, some fear, and others are whispering calls for, a coup d’état to be staged by nationalist mid-level army officers who are not tainted by the corruption of their superiors or their subservience to the ancient regime to rid the country of the SCAF and begin with a clean revolutionary slate. As elections have been postponed until next November, the situation is getting increasingly tense and is gearing up to many possible confrontations – between the Islamists and other revolutionary forces, between revolutionary forces and the army, or within the army itself. The hands of the Americans and the Saudis in all this are too obvious to hide despite official rhetoric. In the meantime, the future of Egypt and Egyptians hangs in the balance.


Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.

Source: aljazeera, 28 Jul 2011


The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.