After 30 years of military state of exception (the Emergency Law), Egypt’s transition from dictatorship is unsurprisingly still negotiating its institutional destination regarding the delicate equilibrium of a democratic political regime, as this is evident in the present talks concerning the powers of the new president, the new Constitution, the structure of the legislative and the role of the judiciary. Most dramatic is the very process of demolishing the old regime while it’s key-players still hang on to their self-assumed prerogative of “protectors” of the “Revolution”. Even if this meant until now torture and murders in the streets and the state prisons, sexual harassment and rape, encouraging religious clashes between Muslims and Copts or between pro-Mubarak youth and the people in the public squares of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Port Said, Al-Mansoura, Qena, Minya etc. To get rid of the past is very much different than trying to look into the future and in all probability this will be the long-term institutional and public deadlock for Egyptians and other people caught in the “Arab Spring”. They are not the firsts to find themselves in such a collective nightmare.
While the main concern of the media these days goes to the disastrous question – who is worse, the military (we already know what they did) or the “Islamists” (we already know what they will do), the more troubling question is how big the gap between getting-rid-of-the-past and looking-into-the-future might be for Egyptians. And for this endeavor we have many, but really many past cases from which to start a comparison. I start from the premise that what we had before February 11, 2011 (the day Mubarak resigned) was a military dictatorship, not only because these old generals that pose today as protectors of the Revolution invoked the 30 years of state of exception (torture, arbitrary arrest, institutional arbitrary etc.) from their patriarchal position of founders and protectors of modern Egypt, but also because Mubarak arranged the succession so as to place all political power in their hands. There are many interesting things to discuss here, but, for now, this constitutes sufficient argument for my main question.
In this first part, I will start a comparison with Latin American military regimes. The similarities between Egypt’s military rule and Latin American experiences in the second half of the last century are evident if we focus on the mechanisms of state repression in the name of national security, the role of the US military, logistic, financial and symbolic support for the “fight against terrorism” and radical ideologies (communism, Islamism – threats that are menacing not only the national interest of the respective countries, but the bigger map of an entire civilization – democracy, liberalism, the rights of minorities and women etc.). Another element Egypt and Latin American military regimes share is the actual effort (sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic) to mimic the institutional functioning of a democratic regime – the appearance of competitive elections (political parties are either sham organizations made up of military-friendly or appointed personnel or, in the tragic version, – the very real opposition is allowed to formulate its ambitions for power and then heavily repressed – see the Constitutional Amendments and their effects in terms of political opppresion after 2004), thus deterring future competition by showing the costs of any act of opposition). The differences between the 20th century military regimes in Latin America and the Egyptian case are however significant and they are likely to play a significant role in the present struggles for the long-term institution-building diagram. And I think we have some things to learn from this comparison.
1. As in the many instances of the Latin American experience of military dictatorships, the Egyptian army is a very strong economic player. There are very interesting debates in the field of civil-military scholarship on the presumed conflict between the institutionalization of the army (military in the barracks) and its economic interests and the detrimental effects of financial greed on the “professionalism” of the military. At the same time, history shows us that a major struggle during the Chilean or the Brazilian transition from military regimes was precisely the curtailing of the economic meddling and the financial autonomy of the armed forces. The major difference between, for instance, the large copper empire of the Chilean army and the economic empire of the Egyptian counterpart is that the latter is very much a diversified economic machine which at no point in time was held accountable for the economic development of the country, a huge prerogative assumed by the armed forces and a major reason for the failure of the military in Latin America from the 1960s until the 1980s.
Furthermore the very flexible Egyptian military economic empire is not dependent on nonrenewable resources but thrives in the services sector (hotels, sports centers, agricultural and urban infrastructures, constructions, consumer goods etc.). And to make things even more complicated, the army is not only refusing to downplay its onerous but lucrative empire, but prides itself with it, as one spokesperson of the Army, General Mahmoud Nasr, the deputy defense minister, declared in 2011, when questioned about the possibility of reducing these activities: these are „revenues from the sweat of the ministry of defense and its own projects”.
Moreover, it seems that the Egyptian army is also lending money to the central bank and no one seems to raise questions about this issue. There is thus a further dilemma to be added to the already much debated issue of embedded corruption and institutional arbitrariness: are we dealing here with a deep state resembling the Turkish model (derin devlet) or should we think rather of a state within a state? Democracy as a political process is evidently undermined in both instances, but there is a significant difference between the two modes of corruption. If the deep state’s inner workings (both corruption and arbitrary violence against dissenters) are kept hidden beneath the surface of the day to day politics, in the latter model the Army does whatever it considers necessary for its own survival as explicit competition with the “civilians’” politics.
2. Another major departure from the Latin American experiences likely to become a long-term struggle is the criminal behavior of the armed forces during the previous Mubarak regime and also during the interim period since his resignation. During the final days of many of the LatAm military regimes, one hot topic was the negotiation between the incoming civilian parties and the generals concerning amnesty laws for the crimes of the previous regimes. Although these amnesty laws never truly succeeded in bringing the officers to account for their ghastly crimes (torture, abductions, and killings), the criminal status of these regimes was a matter of public discourse, and a very hot one for that matter.
Practically, the public debate in most cases was one over the practicalities of bringing the criminals to face their crimes in court, balancing the urgent need for justice with the long-term consolidation of the new democratic institutions vis-à-vis the variable threats of armed resistance to prosecutions, as Argentina showed most emphatically in the numerous episodes of military mutiny in the 1980s and 1990s. More precisely, the criminal character of the previous regimes was a negotiated issue during the transition, most often leading not to immediate criminal prosecutions, but at least marking the public imaginary with a discourse of a debt with respect to the memory of all the desaparecidos and their surviving relatives. This public preoccupation with the crimes of the military meant, in the last instance, that the civilian and the officers agreed that the military had overreached and must return to the barracks, and thus that a purge inside the armed bodies had to be accomplished the easy way (from inside) or the hard way (from outside the military bodies).
The major obstacle to such a public discourse on the crimes of the Mubarak regime is the imbrication of the military in the so-called revolution that ousted Mubarak. “The army. The People. One hand” seemed to smoothly transport the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from one security discourse to another. During the so-called Islamist insurgency in the 1990s the army did all the dirty jobs to protect Mubarak’s “democracy”, after September 11, 2001 the army did whatever was necessary for the global fight against terrorism, which incidentally meant that Egypt became a regional center for torturing and getting rid of all the undesirable suspects/potential terrorists of the West – see more on the very intricate web of international cooperation practiced under the euphemism of (extraordinary) rendition. After Mubarak’s resignation, the Army became suddenly the guardian of the people’s revolution, another euphemism for a gradual process through which it was attempted to monopolize the very meaning of the revolution and, very significantly, the legitimate actors who were expected to carry on the Revolution initiated in Tahrir Square.
However perverse this process of guardianship seems now to most Egyptians who did not back the Army’s presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq last week, this feat of instant cleansing during the first days of the revolution made possible the appalling abuses perpetrated by the army ever since, conferring immunity in most cases of torture, killings or rape perpetrated against unarmed protesters. I think that the most suggestive illustration of this perverse immunity is the present political and public situation of women in the public space in Egypt. Since the so called virginity tests perpetrated by the army in Tahrir Square in the name of something like public virtue – the official explanation for this form of rape was that the army had to prove somehow that such an act would be incomprehensible vis-à-vis those women in the crowds, not “normal girls, like your daughter or mine” – ended up by stopping the “tests” without finding anyone guilty of abuse.
Women have been the major targets of individual and collective abuse. To reduce this to a religious (“islamist”) problem is hilarious in its naivety. Their numbers declined in the last months in all instances of public protest and their recent attempts at claiming respect (physical integrity) as protesters in the public places ended all without exception with acts of violence against them and those few men who dared create a human chain around them. This hyper-sexualization of the female body by the SCAF, only ambiguously amended by a judiciary that failed to condemn the acts of rape is tantamount to an institutionalization of abuse and violation of human rights. And the fact that that Tahrir as a revolutionary phenomenon failed to equally protect all the protesters seems now, with the benefit of hindsight, to have anticipated the declining force of urban-youth-progressive voices that at one point seemed to monopolize the attention of the international mass media (Kefaya since 2004, The April 6 Movement or the more fledgling groups in support of abused young protesters – We are all Khaled Said). Sidelining this core force of the initial urban protests by limiting the rule-making game to a struggle between MB and SCAF is an extraordinary feat that is likely to affect much of the way all institutions negotiated during these times will look like. On top of all this, the legitimacy of the Army as protector of the secular order comes only as a corollary perverse obstacle to any project of institution building and to the very legitimacy of all remaining political actors.
3. One of the most interesting things about the LatAm transitions from military regimes was the significant role played by civil society groups, workers and student unions (inside or outside the structures of left-wing political parties) and, more generally, transversal lines of communication between the new political parties and those more or less institutionalized collectives that embodied the public life of their societies. This had everything to do with the painful memory of regime abuses, but it also continued an older memory and tradition of organization for collective rights. In this sense, Egyptians are in a much more ambiguous situation because the biggest share of the themes of socio-economic deprivation superposed on which is a very fine web of social care services is provided by the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving only a limited space for other forms of Left movements and political demands. At the moment, such groups are still divided, unable to bring a common project to compete with the de-politicizing social care provided by the Brotherhood. Given the complex economic military complex and the rates of general poverty outside a few privileged urban pockets, this avenue for political organization should remain the most potentially explosive entry point for real mass participation in politics.
In the last year since the start of the popular uprising, Egyptians have been called to a number of formal public consultations on different matters. SCAF oversaw the first referendum touching all the major issues of the political struggles ever since: the constitution-making process, the legislative elections and the opening of the political competition to new parties, severely restricted under Mubarak, the framing of presidential powers and, more generally, a transition framework. Since then, all these points have suffered major changes, culminating with the dissolution of the Parliament, the proclamation by SCAF of a new and limited list of prerogatives of the new president and the reenactment of much of the Mubarak-era Emergency law provisions days before the second round of presidential elections.
What is more serious, beyond the fact that the SCAF thought it was entitled to change the rules of the game just within days of the announcement of the new president, is that most actors who initiated the major public debates on constitutional and institutional changes during the last year, the parties and candidates who seemed the most vocal (and creative) actors of the multilayered Egyptian revolution(s), were sidestepped and had to witness the titans – the Muslim Brotherhood (Justice and Freedom Party) and SCAF (Shafiq) clash from the margins of the playing field. Despite the immense contribution of the youth organizations in the public push for free and open political competition, freedom of the press and minority rights, the mobilization of the two electoral machines of the MB and SCAF reflects in the end the true crystallization of political power: the state machine backing the former prime minister of Mubarak, the social networks of the Brotherhood, with a longer experience of social protection and care for the most vulnerable than the state itself, expertly embedded in the majority rural population.
What remained in the fragile middle of this electoral spectrum is precisely that active segment of young and old in the urban Egypt who paid the highest costs during the last year of popular presence and vigilance in the streets so as to prevent the “stealing of the Revolution”. If it’s a truism now to say that there was no revolution to be stolen from the very beginning, because the revolution is what people made of it each time they acted together against arbitrary power injunctions, it is nevertheless quite clear that the revolutionary process changed tracks with each new episode of formal institutionalization of political power (the referendum, the parliamentary and presidential elections), thus marginalizing the ad-hoc, patchwork and undisciplined popular gatherings in the streets – most often explicitly refusing partisan divisions, by the more experienced organization of the Brotherhood.
Although most anti-SCAF Egyptians, those who see the Army as the major obstacle to a new democracy, managed to gather behind the MB presidential candidate in the last days before the results came out, the force of the MB and its Freedom and Justice Party represents at the same time the weakness of the civil society who seemed to blossom about ten years ago in Egypt around issues with a significant potential to truly undermine Mubarak’s regime: the generalized poverty and socio-economic deprivation of the majority of Egyptians, workers’ rights, students’ and youth rights, anticorruption in the state sector and the Army, the security regime of the Emergency Law and the impunity associated with it (torture, arbitrary arrests etc.). These grass-roots organization focusing on specific and explicit demands for improving the day to day life of Egyptians is still waiting for their freedom of expression. And it is significant in this respect that there are still protesters imprisoned in recent months waiting for their release and many more waiting for guarantees that the new Emergency regime installed by the SCAF a few days go will be declared illegal and the Parliament re-installed. What is more, a perverse effect of the most recent military crackdown on the legislative and the civil liberties is that all SCAF opponents have now concentrated their struggle in a demand to strengthen the president’s role so as to counteract the still military dominated executive and judiciary institutions, while the parliament is in a total limbo. This is a very long way away from the protests held one year ago during the first post-Mubarak referendum, when the presidential concentration of all power was seen by many as the major obstacle to a new democracy. And the biggest irony of this is that neither SCAF nor the MB seem to be quite sure if Mori’s mandate is provisional or full-time. This fragmented, improvised power grabbing contest between SCAF and the MB is definitely bad news for the long-term institution building process.
After more than one year of public presence in the streets of Egypt, countless victims and numerous times it was said the “revolution” had been stolen and then regained, there are many voices who conclude that the only real gain for the real people in the streets so far is that they now know they could do it – next time.