Soft Coup, Thorny Consequences For Egypt's Military

In Egypt, there is little disagreement regarding who is in charge. 

The military played a decisive role in the country’s uprising, and it is single-handedly managing the current transition period. As a result, it is likely cementing its role within Egypt’s new political landscape. Yet, despite their unchecked power, military leaders may still be over-stepping tacit boundaries. The last month has revealed that the military -- whose rise to power was a questionable solution to Egypt’s “popular revolution” in the first place -- may be losing the trust of citizens.

On February 11, images of a victorious people's revolution in Egypt flooded the international media. With the exception of nervous dictators, the fall of Hosni Mubarak was welcomed as an awe-inspiring democratic upheaval, and on-lookers across the world paid lip service to the idea of people power. However, while most of the world was celebrating Egypt's self-liberation from the chains of autocracy, more cautious voices warned that this popular revolution could just as easily be interpreted as a soft military coup.

These analysts and commentators argued that, although military leaders maintained an ambiguous role, it was they who were quietly calling the shots that determined the course of Egypt’s uprising.  And there is little dispute that the military decisively pushed Mubarak to step down from power. The military's assertion of its role as the appropriate alternative to Mubarak's crumbling regime was not unwelcome, though. To the contrary, it assumed power with the consent of the public. Because Mubarak hollowed out all legislative bodies in Egypt and co-opted elements of the judiciary as well, the army was perhaps the only institution strong enough to manage the political transition that protesters called for. 

Coup or no coup, it is painfully clear is that the military has lost much of the tenuous legitimacy it possessed in the aftermath of the revolution. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces holds the unbridled power of the presidency in Egypt, with no institutional checks or balances built into this transitional period. Although the military is ushering in some reforms and pushing along the transfer of power with parliamentary and presidential elections set to begin in the fall, its more manipulative measures have contributed to brewing discontent among Egyptians.

For example, some accuse military leaders of protecting ex-NDP officials by stalling their trials, perhaps in hopes that a counter-revolution will preserve the military’s privileged ties to the executive branch. A New York Times piece alleges that the military has struck deals with new political allies, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Others accuse the military of undemocratic decision making, for example passing legislation on the legality of public demonstration and the formation of political parties with no real process of dialogue. None can argue that the military institution lacks mechanisms of accountability and transparency. 

What's worse, over the last month the army has blatantly exhibited the same brutal control tactics for which the Mubarak regime was notorious. After criminalizing certain types of protest, the military violently dispersed a sit-in staged by students and professors at Cairo University, allegedly using tasers. In March, it reportedly arrested and tortured protesters in Tahrir Square, infamously taking eighteen women into military detention behind downtown's Cairo Museum. According to testimonies, the officers beat the women, administered electric shocks, stripped and photographed them, and even subjected some to "virginity tests." Most recently, the army stormed protesters who lingered in Tahrir Square, using excessive force and (arguably) live ammunition that left two dead and dozens injured.

Oddly, many Egyptians and political forces in Egypt still give the military the benefit of the doubt and seek to preserve the "unity" between them that has been egregiously undermined. Reconciliation, rather than condemnation and accountability, seems to be the order of the day. However, as the implications of Egypt's friendly military coup are becoming increasingly clear, Egyptians may soon be compelled to assert their human rights, individual freedoms, and political voice yet again. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Grebowski