Despite unprecedented criticism, Egyptian military still a revered institution

Sherif Abd El Minoem/AP - Egyptian Field Marshal Gen. Hussein Tantawi, left, and new President Mohammed Morsi, center, attend a medal ceremony at a military base east of Cairo, Egypt, on July 5, 2012.

CAIRO — When Egyptian protesters overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year autocracy last year, they initially embraced the long-hallowed armed forces as revolutionary guardians. But that amity quickly decayed amid reports of troops firing on demonstrators and abusing women, and suffered further when an interim junta delayed the democratic transition and stripped powers from the president.

Yet despite the unprecedented ire centered on military chiefs who had never faced public scrutiny, there are very few signs of a dent in the vaunted reputation of the Egyptian armed forces at large.

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Even among demonstrators chanting strident, once-unthinkable slogans in Tahrir Square last week — “Down with military rule!” — it was not difficult to find people such as Tarek Abo Elnaga, 16, who said he dreams of becoming an officer, or Medhat Mohamed, who said he would enlist in a heartbeat, even at age 45, “for my nation.”

The public admiration could bode well for stability. But as the generals fade from the spotlight, analysts say it could also hinder civilian efforts to wrest real control of parliament and military matters — something likely to require backing from a population that is tired of protest and looking for leadership from President Mohamed Morsi, who was sworn in last week.

“It’s definitely going to make the president’s — or whatever civilian institution’s — task all that much more difficult,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an Egypt-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It’s one thing to revolt against Mubarak. It’s completely another to revolt against the military.”

Since the revolution, there have been few reports of unrest within the Arab world’s largest military, which receives about $1.3 billion in U.S. funding annually. A blogger who cast himself as Egypt’s first conscientious objector was arrested and now lives in Germany, and his anti-conscription movement has only about a dozen members.

In an inauguration speech last Sunday, Morsi said the armed forces would “go back to the barracks.” But even before he spoke, the audience of dignitaries and former parliamentarians chanted that Egyptians and the army are one.

“The majority of Egyptians are very much pro-SCAF and pro-military,” said Sameh Saif el-Yazl, a retired army general and security analyst who is viewed as close to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. “People look to the army as the final salvation.”

Polls taken before the elections support his claim. A Gallup survey conducted in April found that Egyptians’ confidence in the military had dropped little since June 2011, from 95 to 89 percent. A Pew Research Center survey this spring indicated that three-quarters of Egyptians believe the military has a good influence. Both surveys found that majorities viewed the council of generals positively.

The military’s standing was built over decades of dictatorial rule by presidents who hailed from the armed forces and was aided by censorship laws that prohibit reporting on the military, shielding it from examination.

To many Egyptians, the army is a valiant force that faced down Israel in the 1973 conflict known here as the “October War,” which ended in stalemate but led to Egypt’s eventual repossession of the Sinai Peninsula. It is viewed as more inclusive and less brutal and corrupt than the police and security services, whose members often served as henchmen for Mubarak.

Pre-revolution, the military was also respected for its business acumen. With its vast land holdings and factories manufacturing products as varied as olive oil and household appliances, it controls more than one-third of the economy, experts estimate. And though slowing military salaries have made uniformed careers unattractive to many educated youths, the army remains a path of upward mobility for the poor.

“At some level, even what it means to be Egyptian is connected to your relation to the military,” said Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University who has studied the armed forces.

A shift in thinking

To be sure, since the revolution, open criticism of a once-untouchable institution — and its long-standing shadow economy, its post-revolt trials of thousands of civilians and “virginity tests” of detained women, and its blatant power grabs — has shaken the military’s reputation as never before, analysts say.

Mahmoud Tabei, a lanky 17-year-old from Cairo, said he was “deep in love” with the army from his earliest memory. He read Internet accounts about the liberation of Sinai, watched military training videos and studied requirements for the branch he wanted to join: the special forces. His esteem continued after Mubarak’s downfall; he figured soldiers accused of brutality had been provoked.

That changed in April 2011, when two demonstrators were killed as the military broke up a protest in Tahrir Square. Tabei said he imagined himself as a soldier in that scene, and he decided the soldiers themselves, not their chiefs, had to be blamed.

“Who is coming to beat us? SCAF or the army?” Tabei said.

Now Tabei is an organizer with a small nationwide movement that stages public screenings of videos of military violence for Egyptians who might have access only to state media. And he vows to refuse conscription.

“My willingness to join was about protecting people,” he said.

Egyptian men between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to serve one to three years, depending on their education level, though exemptions are automatic for those who are the sole male child in their families. Military spokesmen could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts to contact them.

Efforts such as Tabei’s were often eclipsed by competing narratives, encouraged by state media and the generals, that depicted protesters as thugs who wrecked the economy or as Islamist radicals. And no one disputes that the Egyptian military’s treatment of demonstrators drew far less blood than its counterparts in Libya and Syria.

“I have seen, since the revolution, how it defends the buildings,” Cairo student Omar Magdo, 17, said last week of the army, which he said he has every intention of joining.

Division among soldiers

The debate about the military has been at times awkward for soldiers, according to one 23-year-old conscript who serves at an army medical facility in Cairo and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid punishment. After each troop crackdown on demonstrators since last year, he said, strangers, seeing him in uniform, would approach him. Their comments were equally divided between praise and condemnation, he said.

Commanders instructed soldiers not to get personally involved in demonstrations, he said. Inside his unit, he said, emotions about the military’s role were also divided. In his opinion, soldiers sometimes used too much force.

“We didn’t fully understand why there were victims,” he said. But, he said, the low level of education among troops on the front line “was a contributing factor in violence.”

Of course, that criticism of the military exists at all is a sign of a transformed Egypt, analysts said. The scrutiny appears to be irreversible, said el-Shimy, the International Crisis Group analyst.

“The new political environment is not friendly to keeping things secret,” el-Shimy said. Then again, he said, the civil-military power struggle is now probably “going to be behind closed doors.”

Now that the military has withdrawn — at least officially — to the background, anti-military sentiment is bound to soften, at least in the short term, said Kent State’s Stacher.

“Mohamed Morsi will be responsible for every pothole in the country, and that’s a lot of potholes,” Stacher said. “The blame will get transferred over.”

Haitham Mohamed contributed to this report.

 
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