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Military Power v. Protestors

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt

by CARL FINAMORE

Egyptians immediately recognized vivid symbolism few others understood in the soccer riot that broke out recently in the coastal city of Port Said.

First, the killing of 74 Ultras, fans of the Cairo team al-Ahly, occurred on the February 1 one-year anniversary of the memorably notorious “Camel Riders” attack against the Tahrir Square encampment.

Second, the Ultras played an enormously important and especially valiant role in repelling this vicious assault last year by Mubarak’s thugs. Their bravery on that day is acknowledged throughout Egypt.

Deep suspicions of police and military collusion in the soccer stadium assault against these honored heroes of the revolution are bolstered by numerous press accounts of police standing aside for several hours before intervening.

Thus, distrustful Egyptians have not fallen prey to far-fetched, concocted conspiracy theories when assuming the attacks, whether consciously planned or whether consciously permitted, were acts of revenge by authorities.

This extreme example of police misconduct only compounds broader concerns of brutality and injustice.

In the last year, for example, more demonstrators have been killed than during the 18 days of struggle that overthrew Mubarak. The abuses do not end there.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has imprisoned 12,000 regime opponents for trial in impromptu military courts, more than during the entire 29-year rule of Mubarak.

It may be difficult for those outside Egypt to understand the connection between the soccer riot and the military, but it is not such a great leap in a country where millions have so many valid reasons to resent the ruling generals.

As a result, protests quickly erupted throughout the country after reports surfaced of police inaction during the soccer stadium riot.

In Cairo, demonstrators targeted the Ministry of Interior, headquarters of the hated security forces. It is located across from Tahrir Square. The police launched murderous rubber bullet and tear gas assaults almost immediately.

Numerous press accounts described the scene at Tahrir as a “war zone,” identical to the bloody massacres on these same streets against youth in November and against women in December. Both were demanding an end to military rule.

Military Left Standing Alone 

The military in Egypt never particularly preferred a front-stage role but, after the fall of Mubarak, it was the lone institution enjoying majority support. Even though all the top officers were cronies of Mubarak, the army itself never played the same repressive role domestically as the despised internal security police.

The Ministry of Interior employed one million people to do its dirty work but, after the mass youth rebellion last year began to involve large sections of the organized working class, the uniformed thugs virtually disappeared from the scene.

One of the greatest complaints today, however, is that this extensive internal control apparatus, though in disarray, still functions.

Ultimately, the army was the last one standing amidst the crumbling edifice of Mubarak’s crippled regime. Now, after only one year, the generals too are rapidly and increasingly losing credibility and are straining to keep the old power, minus Mubarak, intact.

Extremely important to note is that the newly elected parliament cannot fill the political void and protect the entrenched economic powers if the army recedes into the background.

This is particularly true since the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won around 50 per cent of the parliament with the more extreme Muslim Salafists winning another 20 per cent of the seats. This is not a political balance reflective of society’s needs nor interests and explains why mass protests continue demanding a second revolution.

Thus, the military is and will continue to be the real power, absent a real revolution.

For example, SCAF retains control of appointing the committee to write a new constitution, retains control of appointing the cabinet and has said, amid great controversy, that it will retain exclusive control of the military budget and of military economic affairs.

Even the MB protested this latter announcement.

Top Generals Awarded Land in Gaul upon Retirement

Clearly, the military has much more at stake than simply defending the wealthy establishment and the ordinary privileges top generals normally accrue from their benefactors.

Investigative journalists from GlobalPost spent months researching the vast, secretive economic interests of the generals themselves. It is worth quoting them extensively. 

GlobalPost’s executive editor wrote on January 23, 2012:

“Most analysts and retired officers here say that the military’s increasingly brutal show of force foreshadows the fact that it is not likely to give up executive power easily in large part because it seeks to hold on to its sprawling economic interests — that stretch from industry to hotels to supermarkets and huge real estate portfolios… and in more recent decades it has transformed them into a kind-of privatized economic empire.

“Hamzawy, a former research director for the Carnegie Middle East Center and political science professor at Cairo University, has researched the military and Egypt’s economy for years and estimates that the military may control up to 30 percent of Egypt’s total $180 billion economy, or $60 billion.

“According to protestors, proof enough that the regime’s corruption and deception is profoundly endemic.”

Indeed.

For example, the SCAF recently donated one billion dollars to the government treasury to help with budget deficits. Of course, much to the generals’ chagrin, how the military got one billion dollars raised more questions than praise.

This explains why military rule is so dangerous. SCAF is unwilling, and arguably, unable, to give up power at this time and still keep the old order, including its own vast share, intact.

There simply are no other suitable bourgeois class forces or institutions, at this time, to rule with sufficient authority when millions of rebellious Egyptian youth and workers continue to demand significant economic, social and democratic concessions.

This is a country where 40 per cent still live on less than two dollars a day. Thus, demands for “Freedom, Bread, & Justice” ring loudly throughout the country and resonate with millions. 

Organization & Coordination of the Movement

Continued military rule is, therefore, extremely threatening to those seeking fundamental change. It is made more so because the brave and courageous revolutionaries, a generic term applied to those who want to end military rule and enact serious reforms, are not well organized. This includes both the youth and the newly formed independent unions who are just getting started with little or no past experience.

This inexperience is quite understandable. It is enormously difficult to acquire valuable organizing skills and accumulate material resources under an enduring repressive dictatorship.

For example, there were only four legally recognized independent unions under Mubarak, as Marian Fadel, Egypt Program Officer for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, explained to me on my recent visit to Cairo.

As a result, the best organized political force in Egypt remains the military and the Islamists, a most dangerous observation. This imbalance must be resolved before any real social change occurs.

It is impossible to impose a timetable or a schema from the outside, but it’s safe to say that organization and coordination of the mass protest movement must rise to a higher level to counter the military’s violent outbursts.

This organizational and leadership challenge is not to be discounted, Mubarak himself proposed a Tiananmen-type massacre but it was rejected at the time by the military.

At this point, the murderous assaults are becoming more regular. But they are only skirmishes. SCAF is testing the waters. Once again, they cannot be completely confident that the 468,000-strong conscript army, the largest in the Arab world, will necessarily follow a command to massacre their own people.

But make no mistake. The generals understand the threat to their rule posed by the sustained demands of the youth and working class. Egypt is a powder keg. There is an urgent need for the voices of protest to establish a more cohesive organization and leadership.

The future of the “bread and democracy” movement depends on it.

Carl Finamore was in Cairo the day Mubarak was deposed last year on February 11 and again recently on January 25, the first anniversary of the beginning of the 18-day revolution. He is a Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com.