Egypt: Democrats and Generals Part Ways over the Post-Mubarak Future

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

A woman watches from her balcony as protesters gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square on May 27, 2011, for what is being called the second revolution

The Tahrir Square slogan proclaiming that "The army and the people are one hand" will seem like so much wishful thinking to many of Egypt's youthful democracy activists now that they find themselves increasingly at odds with the transitional military government that replaced President Hosni Mubarak. This week's crackdown on media criticism of the military as an institution is but the latest indication of a parting of ways on Egypt's future: the military authorities called in a prominent blogger and two popular TV journalists for questioning after they criticized the military, which has continued to arrest and harass protesters amid a growing chorus of criticism over the generals' actions. Yet, at the same time, the military leadership insists that it shares the democratic goals of the revolution.

Many Egyptians were incensed Monday by a CNN report quoting an Egyptian general who admitted that the military conducted humiliating "virginity tests" on female protesters arrested in March. "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the general, who was quoted anonymously, told CNN. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square." He said the invasive tests had been conducted in order to pre-empt rape allegations against the army — an explanation that Amnesty International deemed "utterly perverse."

But the latest threats and acts of intimidation against critics were, in an increasingly familiar pattern, accompanied by new carrots offered to the democratic activists. "The head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has called for multiple meetings over the next week to communicate with the maximum number of youth," the council announced, using its Facebook page to call for talks on Wednesday between youth leaders and military representatives. Although several of the largest youth groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, boycotted the event, citing their frustration with the lack of a clear agenda.

Since Mubarak's ouster four months ago, the generals have both sporadically prosecuted and held meetings with prominent youth activists. But, critics say, that pattern reflects the fact that Mubarak's ouster has left autocratic power in the hands of the military council, even if it is far more vulnerable (and sometimes responsive) to domestic criticism than the former President was. "It is very obvious that the real political decisions lie in the hands of the military, and the government acts only as an administrative apparatus," says Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University. "There is a growing lack of confidence between the various sectors of the political spectrum and the army. Many are not happy with what is going on." And that, he says, creates pressure for a more conciliatory response from the military, even if its instincts are to protect its own power, manage the transition on its own terms, and keep its critics off the streets.

Tensions between the generals and the activists have flared in recent months over frustration at the military's autocratic approach to governing. The military council has simply ruled by decree on issues ranging from the death penalty — that it could be applied to rapists under certain circumstances — to an interim constitution and the terms and schedule of a new election. Its continued use of closed military courts to try hundreds of civilians has also evoked criticism. Thousands took to the streets last Friday, in a protest dubbed the second revolution, to demand more military accountability. And a growing number of activists and local journalists make the point that the military's unilateral approach to deciding Egypt's immediate future is an indicator that while Mubarak may have been ousted, the regime that put him in power remains deeply entrenched.

The system, of course, was never reducible to Mubarak. For 60 years, Egypt was ruled by successive dictatorships grounded in the military. As an institution, the Egyptian military has received an annual aid package averaging $2 billion from the U.S. since 1979. It also controls a vast and almost entirely opaque network of economic assets, ranging from juice factories to construction companies, that even the country's interim Finance Minister is nervous to confront. "This file — I am out of my depth to discuss it because I really don't have the facts," Finance Minister Samir Radwan told TIME when asked about the military's funding. "The military [does]. Go and ask them."

Still, many democracy activists remain optimistic. The mere fact that a growing number of activists and ordinary civilians are willing to demand military accountability represents a step forward from the days following Mubarak's ouster, when even his most die-hard liberal opponents accepted at face value the generals' good intentions.

"The lower-class areas still have a lot of faith in the military — it's still sacred for them somehow," says Ammar el-Beltagy, a 20-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "But the politicians and activists have a completely different view. Of course, still no one is able to criticize the military seriously," he adds, but there's an increasingly bolder public discussion of the institution and its role that was unthinkable a few months ago.

"Maybe we won't get what we really want [right away]," says Nafaa. "But in the end, I think we are already in the presence of a new Egypt, in terms of debate, and the momentum is still there. The youth are still ready to go to Tahrir." And the military, despite its intermittently heavy-handed responses, is heedful of public sentiment to a degree unprecedented under the old regime. Mubarak may have been a military man with an entrenched military apparatus, he was still one man, Nafaa points out. Now: "It's the whole institution. You have the government on the one hand, the military council on the other; and then the street, which is still active. You have domestic pressure, regional and international pressure." And the activists are hoping that keeping up the pressure will eventually force the military to oblige them. Their optimism is hardly surprising: after all, nobody would have believed, even five months ago, that unarmed street protests could bring down Mubarak in a matter of weeks.