The ‘black box’ of Egyptian military power

CAIRO – The young Egyptian woman wore a traditional headscarf and shawl, known as an “abaya,” and stood off to the side of the protests before she was knocked down by Egyptian military police. Then she was beaten with batons, stripped to her bra, dragged through the street and stomped by one soldier.

The image has become iconic in Egypt’s continuing revolution.

Captured on video December 17 and broadcast around the world, the attack on this anonymous woman, known simply as “the girl in the blue bra,” has enraged young Egyptian protesters on the streets, offended old-guard loyalists to the regime and galvanized the international human rights community. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “shocking.”

For many Egyptians, the image of a woman in modest Islamic dress beingattacked by soldiers in riot gear has come to embody a U.S.-backed military that is suddenly and violently reacting to unprecedented challenges to its 60-year grip on power. Critics say the military is panicking as an emerging civilian democracy poses a threat not just to its power, but to the military hierarchy’s vast economic holdings.

Looked upon as heroic by many Egyptians for standing by the so-called ‘January 25 Revolution’ and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak one year ago, the legendary Egyptian military suddenly seems out of control.

It is a perception that was confirmed for many observers last week when the military raided the offices of Western non-governmental organizations in a xenophobic campaign to crack down on what the ruling military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), repeatedly refers to as the “hidden hands” behind the pro-democracy movement. It is a bizarre accusation given the fact that the Egyptian military itself receives $1.3 billion in annual military assistance from the United States.

So why do so many observers here and abroad feel the Egyptian military has suddenly become, as one diplomat in Cairo put it, “unhinged?”

Human rights activists, leaders of the opposition movement and even old-guard political and military analysts interviewed by GlobalPost say it is because the ongoing elections are giving shape to a parliament that is intent on bringing the military under the control of civilian government.

Newly elected parliamentarians and candidates in the upcoming elections – from the powerful party of the Muslim Brotherhood to the smaller, more secular factions that grew out of the protest movement – are for first time in six decades insisting that there must be closer scrutiny of the military’s enormous but secretive budget.

These leaders of the pro-democracy movement, such as Amr Hamzawy, an outspoken political analyst and a member of the country’s secular elite who recently won a seat in the new parliament, say it is time to unravel the vast economic power the military wields and, as Hamzawy says, “make it more accountable.”

‘We all lost in this’

In November, just days before the first of a three-phase vote for the lower house of parliament in the first elections since the fall of Mubarak, the military shocked voters by trying to push through constitutional provisions that would have made the military unaccountable to civilian government.

One specific proposal would have shielded the military’s secretive budget and its economic interests from parliamentary scrutiny.

That triggered the protest movement, with the full weight of the Muslim Brotherhood behind it, to hold a massive rally in Tahrir Square on November 19. And that’s when the military showed it was willing to exert all of its force to protect its interests. In what is widely viewed as an excessive use of force, the military killed 40 people in six days of clashes around the country.

Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said, “We always knew that the military has stakes to protect, that they will not happily espouse the proposal of moving from 100 percent of power in 60 years to zero. We knew they’d want to protect veto power over national security decisions, protect their military budget, funding from the US… But we never expected them to engage in this bloodshed.”

In the human rights organization’s Cairo offices on December 19, Bahgat huddled with his staff around a long table scattered with Arabic newspapers that featured blaring headlines and front-page photos of the woman being dragged and beaten by the army. The office was clutered with paperwork for reports alleging abuse by the military. On a television, the SCAF was holding a press conference denying any excessive use of force. Bahgat and the staff looked on and shook their heads. One staffer shouted at the TV: “Lies!”

Bahgat explained, “The damage that is caused will be lasting. It’s going to haunt the army for many years to come. Egypt’s military is becoming the enemy of our revolution. Just like Mubarak was — another hurdle in our road to democracy and justice.”

And, he added, he doesn’t see the military’s attitude changing any time soon. 

“They are going to do everything to resist meaningful civilian oversight,” Bahgat said. “They are panicking about this. This panic is causing them to create one crime after another. And their ability to protect their interests is diminishing the longer they stay in power.”

The criticism of the military goes beyond the human rights community. Even Egypt’s former Ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy, believes Egypt’s military has left a “severe tarnish” on its reputation in recent weeks.

“I think the military must be extremely disappointed and extremely worried by it,” he said, referring to the image of the young woman being beaten and dragged through the streets. “It left a severe tarnish on the reputation and you saw that in the attempts to clarify what happened in a press conference. The power of the images of even just one person being brutalized is truly devastating.”

“I think there was some excessive force; there is no question about that… And I think no matter what explanation the military offers or who is right and who is wrong, the main point is that we all lost in this,” Fahmy added, speaking to GlobalPost in a wide-ranging interview amid the elegant decor of a 19th century palace hotel.

As Ambassador in Washington for a decade until 2008, Fahmy was a standard bearer of the old guard in Egypt. But as a dean of a new center for global affairs at the American University of Cairo, Fahmy speaks with a good deal of authority and perspective on the role of the military in a new Egypt.

Fahmy said he believes there is no excuse for the kind of excessive force the military has exhibited. But he points out that a core of the problem is that the military is not trained as a police force, and that it is increasingly fatigued in trying to play that role through the last year.

“The lessons one can draw from that is that the military should not, medium or long term, play the role of the police. That’s not their function… I am not in any way justifying what has happened and will not. But this is not the kind of theater they are used to. That’s where you see the discipline breaking down,” said Fahmy.

A pattern of abuse

In April, the military first began mass arrests of protesters. In the last year, the military has put some 13,000 civilians before military tribunals on what human rights investigators say are trumped up charges with long sentences and little to no opportunity for appeal.

In this roundup, female protesters were detained and administered so-called ‘virginity tests’ by uniformed male officers, and at least one woman, Samira Ibrahim, filed an administrative case claiming the procedure was tantamount to rape. Last week, in an unusual challenge to the military, the Egyptian courts heard the case and ordered the military to put an end to the practice of ‘virginity tests.’

The tensions around these trials and the military’s ‘old regime’ tactics simmered over the summer months and erupted in spikes of violence through an escalating cycle of protests and military crackdowns this fall.

In October the tension reached a new high point when 25 Christian protesters were killed for demonstrating at Maspero, the national television building. The protests were against what the Coptic Christian minority widely perceive as government indifference to attacks on Christians and specifically over the failure for anyone to be held accountable for the burning of a church.

That was followed by the November demonstrations in Tahrir in which the military allegedly killed 40 people over six days and left hundreds wounded.

And then in mid-December violence flared again when the military moved in to put down a relatively peaceful sit-in in front of a set of government buildings just off Tahrir Square. Demonstrators there were protesting the steady rise in heavy-handed tactics. In this crackdown the military reportedly killed 13 more people.

GlobalPost witnessed men in uniform on the roof of a parliament building hurling concrete blocks and Molotov cocktails down on civilian protesters in what seemed an extraordinary breakdown of military discipline. Some soldiers made lewd gestures, and one image captured a man in uniform urinating on the protesters from the rooftop.

American power

Human rights activists like Bahgat say they can hardly keep up with the civilian complaints about the tide of violence by the military, and the steadily rising death toll it is producing. He says he is frustrated that the U.S. seems unwilling to exert its considerable influence over the military to put an end to the violence.
“The U.S. has unparalleled access to our army generals. They have spent years receiving training, going on trips. They have a strong rapport with the U.S. military leaders,” said Bahgat.

“But perhaps the U.S. realized that this leverage they have is not infinite. They are going to use this leverage wisely on the things that matter to them most. And those are the same things that they prioritized under Mubarak: regional stability, peace with Israel. Unfortunately, we see the U.S. as hostage to this old notion of stability, this idea that brutality is fine as long as it doesn’t upset stability. They seem to fail to realize that it is through violence that the preconditions of instability are established,” he added.

For sure, the U.S. has much at stake in its relationship with the Egyptian military, a key ally in a region where the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has awakened forces for change. The U.S. is also a guarantor of the 1979 Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, which is seen by the U.S. as a pillar of regional stability.

But Egypt’s 350,000 strong military has everything at stake in a new Egypt, most pointedly its $1.3 billion in annual assistance from the United States and the sprawling economic enterprise it helps to support.

Newly elected parliamentarian Hamzawy and others estimate that the military may control up to 30 percent of Egypt’s $180 billion economy. Other more conservative estimates, including one by Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired major general and long-time military analyst for the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, put the figure at an estimated 8 percent of GDP. Western diplomats in Cairo say a safe guess is somewhere in the middle of these estimates.

The reality is that no one knows the precise extent of the Egyptian military’s economic holdings because successive authoritarian regimes have made sure it was kept secret.

But a glimpse of its economic might emerged last week when the government-run media reported that the military had provided $1 billion to the Egyptian government’s central bank to help prop up its faltering currency. How many militaries in the world have revenue that provides capital which exceeds the government’s own coffers?

Current and former American and Egyptian government officials interviewed in Washington and Cairo all say that the military and its full economic portfolio are very much a “black box,” as one former American official put it.

An economic empire

GlobalPost has interviewed more than a dozen officials, including retired Egyptian generals as well as former and current diplomats and military attaches, and tried to get a baseline of the Egyptian military’s reach. Here’s what these officials confirm:

The military owns huge tracts of land around Cairo where opulent residential developments are built and officers are given housing. In New Cairo, there is a new national sports stadium being built by the Air Force. The military controls bakeries, farmland and industrial factories that make everything from tanks to toasters as well as hospitals and the toll roads to the highly profitable port of Suez. The economic empire is present at just about every turn in a country where they openly hold claim to gas stations, hotels, shopping complexes and even their own chain of supermarkets.

Dating back to the era of president and general Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early 1950s, the Egyptian military has built up nationalized industries and in more recent decades it has transformed them into a kind of privatized economic empire. What started off as a culture of perks for retired generals to serve as executives and high-level managers in these enterprises has become, according to a growing list of critics, a culture of corruption.

One of those critics is Mohammed Okasha, who lives in a modest apartment in Cairo and has written several books on the history of the military. He gets by on a military pension that gives him a middle class lifestyle for which he says he is grateful.

A decorated bomber pilot who led raids in the 1967 Six Day War and again in the 1973 conflict with Israel, which in Egypt is commemorated as the ‘October 6’ victory. The retired general was so proud of the military supporting the youth in Tahrir Square that he painted his own banner and marched to the square just a few days after the protests began on January 25.

The banner read, “The fighters of October 6 stand with the fighters of January 25.”

Okasha said he has always been proud of his military background even if he was not so proud of fellow officers enriching themselves through perks which he says eventually became outright greed. Now Okasha says he is increasingly ashamed of the military. He watched in disbelief in recent months as the army descended into violence and brutality and showed the “true face,” as he puts it, of the old regime.

“Of course, they don’t want to give up this power that they enforce with their military equipment. This power comes with other facilities and other profits. … It’s a cash flow for the businesses owned by the military,” says Okasha.

“They will never give it up with out a fight,” he adds.

Former Ambassador Fahmy is more confident that the military will ultimately live up to its promise to relinquish power in six months when a new president takes office. But he concedes that this transfer of authority will mean many challenges for the military as it will struggle to live up to a new and more democratic system of transparency and accountability.

“I think that people actually want to believe in their military … But this will require moving to civilian rule quickly and requires putting together a system based on four basic principles,” he said, listing them as “transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and finally competitiveness.”

These principles of governance will be a direct challenge to the military’s vast economic reach. And undoing the military’s hold on so much economic power may in the end of the day be needed for the much-needed modernization of Egypt’s struggling economy. Right now Egypt’s economic growth is at a precarious zero percent. That is particularly ominous in a country with a surging population that needs to produce 175,000 new jobs every year just to maintain its already very high level of unemployment, particularly for youth.

Several high-level Egyptian and Western officials point out that the military’s economic empire – combined with the vast corruption throughout the regime – has been holding Egypt back economically for decades. So more transparency and better governance over the military may, these officials say, actually be a key to Egypt’s peaceful transition to democracy.