The Egyptian military are under fire. Yesterday, 3000 gathered in Tahrir Square to demand that they deliver on their promised reforms and bring to justice former regime members. The rally was met with an uncompromising response as the army used tasers, batons and – allegedly – live rounds to disperse the crowd under the cover of a night curfew. This reaction only adds to a growing body of accusations that have trickled out over the past month: activists claim have made arbitrary arrests, abusing and torturing prisoners, and subjecting detainees to rapid military justice. That such claims are reminiscent of those levelled at the old regime – if indeed the current ruling military council can be called ‘new’, given that it is made up of so many old faces – and this should come as no surprise.
The ‘deep state’
The ongoing revolution may have toppled a dictator, but it has not dislodged the roots of an authority that runs far deeper. In the years that followed the Free Officers Movement, essentially a military coup that deposed a monarch and created the Arab Republic of Egypt, it was the army that played a key role in constructing and entrenching Egypt’s strong political infrastructure. That this survived the fall of its leader is testament to the true strength of the system.
The military played a key role in reinforcing Mubarak’s authority right up until his final days in office. In return, they were rewarded with a privileged position in society. Life in the top brass was a lucrative business and even the officers reaped the economic benefits; special schools, hospitals, and residential areas were created especially for the officers and their families, separating them from the rest of the population.
Yet just as military support reinforced and legitimated Mubarak’s authority, their decision to turn against him proved prove deadly. Geoffrey Aronson, who has characterised this layer of political influence as the ‘deep state’, has argued compellingly that the fall of Mubarak reflected the prioritization of the military’s self-interest over loyalty to the presidency.
By the time Mubarak gave his final televised speech, it was clear that he was no longer calling the shots. The previous evening, it was not he but a longstanding member of the military establishment, Omar Suleiman, who appeared on state television announcing negotiations over the direction of a political transition. Having purposely kept out of the day to day running of the country, leaving such responsibilities to the hated police apparatus, the military remained in a position where they could credibly and definitively intervene during the revolution, indicting key members of the security services and maintaining their well-crafted image as defender of the Egyptian people.
Torturers of the revolution
But as yesterday’s demonstration shows, the mask is starting to slip. In the 2 months since Mubarak fell, a growing body of evidence has emerged to suggest that the army were complicit in torture throughout the revolution. A Channel 4 report this week documented disturbing stories of the military’s actions:
Some protesters claim they were taken to the nearby museum which was allegedly turned into a torture chamber.
One of them is 21-year-old Khaled Yaries who says he was badly beaten inside the Egyptian Museum. Footage taken as he recovered in hospital shows his torso covered in bruises and red slash marks where, he says, he was beaten by soldiers (pictured above).
“They told me to strip off my clothes and lie on my stomach,” Khaled said. “They started to beat me and I tried to fend them off with my hands. So they tied up my hands.”
And this is by no means the first time such allegations have been made. Since 9/11, Egypt has emerged as a key destination for America’s extraordinary rendition programmes. During this time, the military is believed to have been responsible for both the torture and interrogation of countless victims. Naturally, there remains little to suggest that the US issued direct instructions to this effect, but victim testimonies offer weight to claims that such a relationship existed in an informal, often implicit, capacity. This would certainly explain the American hesitancy, at least in public, to condemn Mubarak’s repeated renewal of the draconian Emergency Law, legislation which permitted the suspension of basic rights, prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, and detaining prisoners indefinitely without charge.
Given the unaccountability that the Emergency Law preserved, it is not difficult to imagine more horror stories of the army’s role in silencing dissent behind closed doors.
The media war
The battle to define to define the narrative continues. This morning, an army spokesman was wheeled out on state television to insist that only ‘blanks’ had been fired to break up the protest. The images circulating on social media networks tell a different story:
At 3.20am, a huge number of army special forces (sa3ka) , military police and central state security (amn markzi) supported by 20-30 army armored vehicles and tanks stormed the square, thousands of rounds of ammunition have been used, soldiers beating and attacking the civilian demonstrators , some of them were families with children.
Many were injured and others got arrested and many others dispersed running for shelter in the roads [...] around 4am, the army seemed to be setting up the scene for their own spin on events. After they dispersed the protesters we saw them go into the square, break chairs and tables, and other items, basically destroying items , burning banners and tents and then we saw them step away from the broken items and bringing in their own camera and actually taking footage (not sure if it’s video or photography) of the broken items. The footage they’re taking shows only broken items and NOT the army personnel in the process of breaking them. This seems to be their attempt to set up their spin on things – what we expect is that they will use this footage to try to portray the protesters as violent thugs who broke chairs and various other items to use as weapons or that the protesters were just vandalizing things, etc.
In a great piece for CFR, Steven Cook has gone into more detail about this ‘battle over competing legitimacies’. That Al Jazeera are broadcasting stories that directly contradict the military’s claims, may yet prove important. But in a nation where many are now trying to refocus on the struggles of day-to-day life, there remains a real worry that it will be the voice of the military, and not of the protesters, that wins the media war.