Since the January revolution in Egypt, the country has struggled to establish civil institutions and viable political parties. But the institutions and movements that do carry momentum, especially the youth movement and the newly independent media, continue to battle an entrenched military apparatus that still resorts to stubborn displays of political muscle.
The temporary military rule now governing Egypt is perhaps a necessary evil during a difficult political transition, but recent actions by the military are cause for alarm. Various news agencies have reported cases of military intrusion in media affairs, including arrests and interrogations of journalists. Last week there were reports of multiple “virginity tests” administered to female detainees, and two protestors were shot by military forces in Tahrir Square in early April. Arresting journalists, humiliating women, and killing protestors are behaviors incompatible with any degree of civil liberty. It’s the type of behavior one would expect from the old Mubarak guard.
These cases signal the opening of a new chapter in the Egyptian revolution, a chapter characterized by steps backward rather than forward. Instead of uniting Egypt, a rift is forming between the old allies of the revolution. And unlike other challenges plaguing Egypt, such as the political wrangling among parties that actually serves the process of a democratic change, the military poses an existential threat to democratic reforms.
“It feels like there is something wrong; it’s hard to tell if the army is with the revolution,” said a leader of the Egyptian youth movement interviewed by Al-Jazeera. Indeed, his gut feeling is more than just an instinctive reaction.
During the revolution, the reformers and the military worked in a steady codependency. The revolution could not have happened without the security provided by the military; the new military leadership would not have overthrown the Mubarak regime without the vivacious, tech savvy youth movement. As Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center points out, “In both Egypt and Tunisia, very clearly in Egypt, the population appealed to the armed forces to protect the revolution and to intervene in its favor and, in fact, the army did just that; it protected the revolution, and effectively facilitated and pushed the departure of President Hosni Mubarak.” But now a disconnect has emerged between the secular youth movement that initiated the revolution and the stubbornness of a military apparatus.
The role of the military is to provide security for the civilian population; it is not to defend itself and its leadership from criticism. This is especially true when the military leadership and the political leadership are synonymous. The actions of the military during the January and February protests were an example of the military doing its job well. But now the military is not facilitating the revolution; it’s hindering the revolution by arresting and threatening the voices of reform.
Sadly, the tacit alliance between youth reformers and the military is broken, and Egypt hangs precariously on the precipice of democratic reform. Now the greatest threat to Egyptian democracy is the reestablishment of military rule, which will censor the media, arrest dissidents, and undermine the democratic transitions.
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