There is something macabre about the public relations stunts being organised by the Egyptian Army as it tries to manipulate democracy to its own ends. Considering that those demonstrating against the July 3rd coup d’état were mown down by gunfire and others beaten before being imprisoned, was it really appropriate for military aircraft to trail national flags and paint red-white-and- black smoke hearts in the Cairo skyline?
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the 58-year-old former intelligence chief now in charge of his country’s mighty war machine certainly thinks so. All of his speeches are about putting ‘the people’ first. His over-riding message is that President Mohammed Mursi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was by no means the popular choice to be head of state, and that trust in a disciplined force of armed men is the only guaranteed route to justice and freedom. Or, as the chants echoing around the carefully orchestrated el-Sissi press conferences put it: ‘The Army and the people are one hand’.
It is a warped logic, but one which has characterized the rule of almost every failed Arab nation in recent years. Dictators like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq spent most of their time in uniform, while those still struggling for survival, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, also insist that their misrule is delivered at gun point. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader for 30 years before being brought down by the Arab Spring in 2011, always considered himself first and foremost a career officer who commanded the Egyptian Air Force in the mid-1970s.
What single-minded individuals like this really decide is that their will is paramount, and that they are perfectly qualified to take all the decisions. In other words, they act exactly like military commanders are expected to act: not by negotiating, but by giving orders. None of history’s decisive battles were won by collective decisions, nor by any kind of conciliation at all – they were won by a ruthless form of command which effectively ignored anybody else’s opinions beyond those in charge. This is the difference between dictatorship and democracy.
Such facts make a mockery of the Egyptian Army’s claim that it did not stage a coup earlier this month, and that it is merely safeguarding democracy. Of course it staged a coup – it removed an elected leader and replaced him with its own interim president. Whatever you think about Mursi’ year in power, he had more of a mandate than the tanks and soldiers which moved on him. Arguing that Mursi was becoming ‘too authoritarian’ – as el-Sissi has – is the stuff of dark comedy. You cannot get more authoritarian than an Army assuming absolute control of a country.
Mursi, his former ministers and Muslim Brotherhood activists who have been rounded up in their hundreds, are now facing prison or worse, while ordinary people daring to take to the streets to try and save their revolution will suffer similar fates. Forget airborne stunts, this is what armies really do.
With all this in mind, it is surely the job of anybody striving to establish democracy in the Arab World to look beyond the gold braid and high-peaked caps favored by military types. Enlightened politicians in the Middle East and North Africa must, as a priority, ensure that the Army is an arm of the state, and not a state within a state.
‘Who guards the guards?’ is a conundrum as old as Egypt itself, but the country currently has an urgent need to answer this question before it plunges into civil war. El-Sissi was until a few weeks ago expected to be utterly loyal to Mursi, but has proved to be anything but. A fledgling political system has crumbled in the face of persecution of Mursi and his supporters, and even el-Sissi’s claims that new elections will restore democracy sound woefully hollow.
What most Egyptians fear is that a ‘democratic’ government will be manufactured by the officers who ultimately control it. If this pattern continues – as it has done for far too long throughout the Arab World – then hopes of genuine popular representation and fair governance will remain just that.