Analysis: Unrest mars Egypt army's sterling image

Just one third of country’s people wants to maintain peace with Israel.

November 24, 2011 01:31
Tahrir Square as protesters chant slogans

Tahrir Square as protesters chant slogans (R) 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s revolution is entering a new and uncertain phase as the country’s military rulers – hailed as saviors after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow – struggle to distinguish themselves from the authoritarian president they sacrificed at the altar of popular unrest.

This week, Amnesty International issued a scathing report accusing the army of brutality that at times exceeded that of the Mubarak regime. The study found that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had tried thousands of civilians under emergency law, deployed “thugs” to attack protesters and made repeated “empty promises” on improving human rights.

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Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next week, though the presidential ballot remains months away. The latter was originally scheduled for late 2012 or early 2013, but on Tuesday, opposition parties announced that they had reached an agreement with SCAF chairman Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi on moving up presidential voting to this summer.

Still, the move is unlikely to placate protesters. At least 37 people have been killed in Tahrir Square since clashes with security forces followed renewed rallies there on Saturday.

Average Egyptians – euphoric in February at toppling Mubarak’s three-decade rule – are once again enraged at what they see as the army’s curbs on their democratic aspirations.

“The generals are as usual late – late in realizing the situation is serious, late in coming up with a response,” said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, who hails from Cairo. “One of course has to be fair to them and acknowledge that they were neither trained for the task nor did they seek it. The responsibility was thrown upon them.”

“Tantawi and the SCAF have attempted to balance between various groups. The three players are the Islamists, the non- Islamist elite and the street radicals. SCAF has so far been trying to accommodate the first two groups. After all, those groups are the ones they can understand and deal with,” Tadros said.

“Balancing between different and contradictory demands will result in no one being satisfied.”

The source of their resentment is three-fold. First is the delayed transition to civilian rule – a deferral many view as a transparent bid to hold on to the power the army has enjoyed uninterrupted since a 1952 coup against an unpopular king.

Second, the army has pushed a constitutional provision that would see it retain extensive powers even after any such transition.

Last was the reintroduction of the emergency laws.

“What happens next is anyone’s guess,” Tadros said. “The protesters aren’t leaving [downtown areas]. The use of force to make them leave can succeed temporarily, but unless SCAF is ready to use absolute force and end this once and for all, it will continue.”

Shibley Telhami, an Israeli-Arab pollster who is the University of Maryland’s Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development, said that although the army retains considerable support among Egyptians, its once sterling reputation as a defender of the people has been tarnished.

“You have now multiple segments of society who are challenging the military’s political power, and the opposition is coming not from one source,” Telhami, who recently conducted extensive polling in Cairo, told the Council on Foreign Relations. “Initially the liberals were the most aggressive in wanting the early transfer of authority to civilian control.

Now you find opposition among Islamists, who organized the latest demonstrations, but you also find it among many Christians, specifically after the confrontation several weeks ago that led to the death of several Copts.”

Army leaders, he said, “still have a reservoir of goodwill. A lot of Egyptians actually are invested in the military as an institution because they envision Egypt to be a powerful and leading Arab state in the Middle East and they think they should have the military power to go with it. The public’s concern is about the military’s intervention in politics.”

Telhami said his poll found that the Egyptian army’s approval rating – around 90 percent at the time of Mubarak’s overthrow – had plummeted to just over 40%.

Forty-three percent of respondents believe the military is “working to reverse the gains of the revolution, while only 21% believe that they are working to advance it,” he said.

“It is rather extraordinary that we now see evidence from this poll, which was conducted in six cities in Egypt, that indicates a plurality of Egyptians now think the military is working against the goals of the revolution,” Telhami said.

The poll confirmed that Amr Moussa – a former foreign minister under Mubarak and later head of the Arab League – retains pole position in the race for Egypt’s presidency with 20% support.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is closely behind, followed by ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

When asked what foreign leader Egypt’s new president should emulate, Telhami said, responses were overwhelmingly in favor of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Interestingly, we also asked them which country would you want Egypt to look like politically, and again the number one answer was Turkey,” he said.

“Turkey has found an assertive foreign policy that resonates with the public, particularly on the Israel-Palestine question. That Middle Eastern assertiveness and independence resonates well with the Egyptian public.”

The poll reaffirmed several earlier independent surveys on attitudes toward peace with Israel, a subject on which Egyptians are deeply divided.

“A little more than a third say they would like to see the treaty canceled, about a third would like to keep the treaty, and the other 40% really don’t know or are uncertain,” Telhami said.

A Pew Research Center survey from April found just 36% of Egyptians wanted to keep the 1979 peace treaty, and 54% in favor of annulling it.

“When you ask, ‘What if Israel does sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians and have a tw-ostate solution?’ you have a number of people who want to keep the peace treaty increase a little, but only to about 41- 42%,” Telhami said.

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