Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will Egyptian soldiers blindly obey the orders of dictators? Or defend democracy and people they joined the army to protect?

The euphoria in Egypt over Mubarak’s resignation is justified as a first step, but so far, while the dictator is gone, the dictatorship remains, under either Mubarak’s appointee and secret police chief Omar Suleiman, or General Tantawi, or Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq (another Mubarak appointee). Any elections organised by them are not guaranteed to be any fairer than the rigged shams they helped organised for Mubarak, though it seems all opposition parties will be legalised and permitted to take part this time (1) – (2).

While it originally seemed the military had seized power under the ‘High Council of the Armed Forces’ and that they might soon hand over power to the pro-democracy parties in the government of National Unity the protesters have demanded, it’s become clear this will not happen unless there is another round of confrontation between the regime and the protesters. The general strike by Egyptian trade unions, which brought Egypt’s economy to a standstill, was what finally got the military to oust Mubarak (3).

The protests continue to be as much about inequality and poverty for the majority (made worse by the global recession) as they are about democracy and civil rights. Amnesty international reported that as the clean up of Tahrir Square began “In hospitals, banks and insurance companies, employees gathered to demand better pay and working conditions.”  Protesters for higher pay include everyone from public sector employees such as ambulance drivers to tourism workers (4) – (5). Mubarak followed neo-liberal economic policies recommended by the IMF. While this resulted in economic growth,  the benefits went to a small minority. Mubarak’s family has an estimated fortune of $70 billion, another thousand families who are close to Mubarak benefited greatly and unemployment fell, more than half the population lives on less than £1 a day and there are a million homeless street children in Egyptian cities (6) – (10).

Suleiman the torturer as Mubarak Mark II ?

Omar Suleiman - Mubarak's torturer in chief

The military have said that alongside the “High Council” the “existing cabinet” will remain in place until elections– that means Mubarak’s appointees, including Prime Minister Ahmed Sahfiq (11) – (12). Suleiman’s role remains unclear – possibly deliberately. Some media reports claim Suleiman (appointed Vice President by Mubarak) is part of the ruling military council ; others quote the Prime Minister as saying the council will decide on Suleiman’s role (13) – (14). Both suggest he is still very much part of the government.

Previous US government statements backing Suleiman, combined with US influence over the Egyptian military through military aid, suggest the Obama administration had a role to play in ensuring Suleiman remained part of the government, though this is uncertain (15) – (17). This suggests an aim similar to the Bush and Clinton administrations in Iraq in the 1990s – remove the dictator, but keep the dictatorship in place.

Suleiman has a long working relationship with the CIA and FBI, particularly in extra-ordinary rendition (or kidnapping for torture), with many people kidnapped by the CIA tortured in Egyptian prisons over the decades. As intelligence minister and head of the Mukhabarat secret police, he was responsible for some of the most horrific torture under Mubarak – sometimes torturing prisoners himself. He recently said he thinks Egyptians don't yet have the “culture” required to support democracy and speculated that it wouldn’t have it any time soon (17a). He is unlikely to have changed overnight. (18) – (21). So it’s no surprise that Egyptian protesters don’t want Suleiman as Mubarak Mark II (22) – (23).

The military have also said they  have suspended the constitution (as demanded by the protesters as it was written and amended by the military and dictatorships) and dissolved parliament (another of the demonstrators’ demands).

The upper ranks of the Military supporting the dictatorship

However while the military have posed as neutral, or even in favour of the demonstrators, in practice they have so far backed the dictatorship and are refusing the protesters’ main demand – re-iterated in their recent People’s communique No. 1-  a transition to an all party National Unity government, excluding Mubarak’s appointees, but including one military representative, before elections – to ensure elections are free and fair. The military have given no response to protesters demands for the right to form trade unions independent of government either  (24) – (28). (Most of the media have given far less detail on protesters’ statements than on those of the military – the full peoples’ communiqué is only available from websites and blogs that have published it)

The military have been involved in the jailing and torture of protesters (29). They allowed Mubarak’s thugs into Tahrir Square to attack the protesters. They have repeatedly demanded that the demonstrators go home both before and since Mubarak’s resignation; and demand the strikes be ended before all the protesters’ main demands are met (30) – (32). Their concessions so far seem to be more an attempt to concede what they have to in order to divide the opposition (by getting some to think they’ve won and go home) without relinquishing power or control over organising new elections (retaining the option of rigging them).

This does not mean that there are no divisions within the military. There may be divisions among the generals and between units personally loyal to Mubarak and those that aren’t. Mubarak remains in the country, ostensibly under military imposed restrictions on members of current or former members of government leaving the country. The motive for imposing those restrictions remains unclear – it may be to prevent officials leaving the country with large amounts of public money, or it might be being used to prevent a panic among those who have ruled for decades that leads to so many fleeing into exile that they and the Generals lose control.

Egypt’s military, like Pakistan’s, has acquired ownership of many of the farms, factories and businesses in the country and makes considerable profits from maintaining as much of the existing order as possible (33) – (34). This cuts two ways though – the military loses money as long as protests and strikes continue and if they spread again. So they are as likely to make more concessions as to crack down on protests and strikes.

Soldiers and Middle Ranking Officers – the hope for the protesters

The protesters, if they are wise (and so far they have been) will be looking to divide the different factions among the Generals, just as they copied Tunisians in focusing their anger on the police to ensure they didn’t side with the army (though Tunisia, like Egypt, has so far only managed to get rid of the dictator, not the dictatorship).

The greatest hope for the people of Egypt is to get the majority of the military – the lower and middle ranks – on their side against the Generals. If the protesters keep up the pressure and the trade unions call more general strikes then at some point the Generals must choose either to concede to their demands or else to risk being overthrown by their own soldiers by ordering them to attack their own people.

This could go either way. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote that in his books on Auschwitz that even the SS Concentration camp guards were mostly not evil people, but people who obeyed orders too readily. They were “average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked; save for exceptions, they were not monsters…but they had been reared badly. They were, for the greater part, diligent followers and functionaries…some fanatically convinced…many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career, or too obedient.” (35)

Primo Levi - who survived the Holocaust

The point is that it does not take uniquely evil people to do evil things - whether the mass murder of the holocaust, or torturing and murdering people who are only peacefully demanding democracy and freedom from torture and murder. It only requires people to act without thinking, obey without questioning, to do what is easiest because it's easiest, or because it's expected of them, or because their career might suffer otherwise, or because they're afraid they'll be punished or ridiculed otherwise.

(One of the protesters in Tahrir Square who refused to go home when the army told him to again after Mubarak’s resignation is a chemist – just like Levi).

Protesters refuse to be moved from Tahrir Square by the army after Mubarak's resignation, until they have democracy instead of a new dictator or one-party state

Social experiments by scientists have shown how strong the urge to conform to the wishes of those in authority is even in democracies.

This is even more the case for soldiers than it is for other people, as soldiers are trained to obey orders without question.

The lower and middle ranks of the Egyptian military – the ordinary soldiers and low ranking officers – need to ask themselves whether they should obey orders to jail, torture or murder the same people they joined the military to protect in the first place. This is not a war. There is not a threat to Egypt from some foreign invasion. The threat comes from their own Generals and Mubarak’s appointees like Suleiman to the Egyptian people. Egypt’s soldiers should not obey that threat but oppose it – and if necessary overthrow it so their country can become a democracy and they and their people can enjoy the same simple freedoms that some of the rest of the world has enjoyed for a long time now – the freedom to say and write what they think, to vote for whatever party or candidate they want to, to stand themselves in elections, to change their government and it’s policies through elections, to not fear that the police may drag them or their family away to be jailed or tortured just for doing any of this.

There have already been many interviews with soldiers and junior officers who do sympathise with the protesters and many middle ranking officers who have even joined the protests (36) – (37).

The elected heads of government of many foreign governments may be allies of the dictatorship (Blair and his family going to Egypt on holiday at Egyptian taxpayers’ expense - and Sarkozy  and his family having spent a Christmas holiday with Mubarak. Blair  also recently called Mubarak “courageous and a force for good” – even after he had his police and thugs murder 300 democracy protesters, while Obama and Clinton back Suleiman), but most of the people of the existing democracies wish Egyptians well and hope they will unite to secure their freedom (38) – (40).

(1) = Wikipedia entry for Omar Suleiman,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Suleiman

(2) = Human Rights Watch 23 Nov 2010 ‘Elections in Egypt’,http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/11/23/elections-egypt

(3) = Guardian.co.uk 09 Feb 2011 ‘Egyptian talks near collapse as unions back protests’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/09/egypt-protest-talks-union-mubarak

(4) = Amnesty Livewire 14 Feb 2011 ‘The new face of Egypt’,http://livewire.amnesty.org/2011/02/14/the-new-face-of-egypt/

(5) = BBC News 14 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt crisis: Protests switch to demands on pay’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12448413

(6) = IMF Survey Magazine 13 Feb 2008 ‘Egypt: Reforms Trigger Economic Growth’,http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2008/car021308a.htm

(7) = guardian.co.uk 04 Feb 2011 ‘Mubarak family fortune could reach $70bn, say experts’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/04/hosni-mubarak-family-fortune

(8) = guardian.co.uk 06 Feb 2011 ‘A private estate called Egypt’, by Professor Salwa Ismail, London School of Economics,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/06/private-estate-egypt-mubarak-cronies

(9) = guardian.co.uk 14 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt's army calls for end to strikes as workers grow in confidence’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/14/egypt-army-strikes-workers

(10) = UNICEF ‘A new approach to Egypt’s street children’,http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/egypt_30616.html

(11) = ABC News 13 Feb 2011 ‘Egyptian army vows transition to democracy’,http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/02/13/3137352.htm ; ‘"The current government and governors undertake to manage affairs until the formation of a new government," a senior army officer said in a statement delivered on state television.’

(12) = BBC News 14 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt crisis: Protests switch to demands on pay’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12448413 ; ‘During the transition the cabinet appointed by Mr Mubarak last month will go on governing, submitting legislation to the army chiefs for approval.’ ;        ‘Military statement - Constitution suspended ; Council to hold power for six months or until elections; Both houses of parliament dissolved; Council to issue laws during interim period; Committee set up to reform constitution and set rules for referendum ;Caretaker PM Ahmed Shafiq's cabinet to continue work until new cabinet formed ; Council to hold presidential and parliamentary elections ; All international treaties to be honoured’’

(13) = Al Jazeera 12 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt's military leadership - Brief profiles of members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as it assumes power from Hosni Mubarak’,http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/02/201121185311711502.html ; ‘General Omar Suleiman, vice-president and former intelligence chief, is among the key retired or serving military officers on the council.

(14) = Press TV 13 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt army to decide on Suleiman fate’,http://www.presstv.ir/detail/165105.html ; ‘"The role of Omar Suleiman will be defined by the Higher Military Council," Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on Sunday.’

(15) = guardian.co.uk 06 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt protests: Hosni Mubarak's power fades as US backs his deputy’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/06/egypt-protests-hosni-mubarak-sulieman

(16) = NYT 03 Feb 2011 ‘White House and Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit’,http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/world/middleeast/04diplomacy.html?_r=2

(17) = guardian.co.uk 04 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt protests: US resists calls to cut military aid’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/04/egypt-protests-us-military-aid

(17a) = Reuters 10 Feb 2011 'Egypt VP democracy comment misunderstood-state agency', http://af.reuters.com/article/egyptNews/idAFLDE7192CG20110210

(18) =  Al Jazeera 07 Feb 2011 ‘Suleiman: The CIA's man in Cairo  - Suleiman, a friend to the US and reported torturer, has long been touted as a presidential successor’, by Professor Lisa Hajar of the University of California, http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201127114827382865.html

(19) = ABC News 01 Feb 2011 ‘New Egyptian VP Ran Mubarak's Security Team, Oversaw Torture’,http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/egypt-crisis-omar-suleiman-cia-rendition/story?id=12812445&page=1

(20) = New Statesman 2004 ‘America’s Gulag’

(21) = Human Rights Watch 09 May 2005 ‘Black Hole – the fate of Islamists rendered to Egypt’,http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11757/section/1

(22) = Bloomberg Businessweek 01 Feb 2011 ‘Mubarak’s Top Spy Rejected by Cairo Streets as Masses March’,http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-02-01/mubarak-s-top-spy-rejected-by-cairo-streets-as-masses-march.html

(23) Haaretz (Israel) 11 Feb 2011 ‘ElBaradei: Egypt's Mubarak government is a 'sinking ship' ,http://www.haaretz.com/news/international/elbaradei-egypt-s-mubarak-government-is-a-sinking-ship-1.342694 ; ‘ElBaradei scoffed at Mubarak's statement that he would transfer powers to his new deputy, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, in line with the constitution. He continued, "the people on the street feel the same way about Suleiman as they feel about Mubarak. He is to them only a mirror image of Mubarak."

(24) = guardian.co.uk 13 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt's military rejects swift transfer of power and suspends constitution’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/13/egypt-military-rejects-swift-power-handover

(25) = guardian.co.uk 12 Feb 2011 ‘Army and protesters disagree over Egypt's path to democracy’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/12/egypt-military-leaders-fall-out-protesters

(26) = Reuters 30 Jan 2011 ‘ElBaradei urges U.S. to abandon Mubarak’,http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/30/us-egypt-usa-elbaradei-idUSTRE70T30920110130?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews ; ‘"I have been authorized -- mandated -- by the people who organized these demonstrations and many other parties to agree on a national unity government," ElBaradei told CNN.’

(27) = Scoop NZ 14 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt's Protesters Communique Number 1’,http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO1102/S00466/egypts-protesters-communique-number-1.htm

(28) = ABC News 13 Feb 2011 ‘Egyptian army vows transition to democracy’,http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/02/13/3137352.htm ; People's Communique No. 1", issued by the protest organisers, demands the dissolution of the cabinet Mr Mubarak appointed on January 29 and the suspension of the parliament elected in a rigged vote late last year.The reformists want a transitional five-member presidential council made up of four civilians and one military person. The communique calls for the formation of a transitional government to prepare for an election to take place within nine months, and of a body to draft a new democratic constitution. It demands freedom for the media and syndicates, which represent groups such as lawyers, doctors and engineers, and for the formation of political parties. Military and emergency courts must be scrapped, the communique says.’ (From the full text linked to above - (27) – ‘syndicates’ here is almost certainly a mis-translation of ‘trade unions’.)

(29) = guardian.co.uk 09 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt's army 'involved in detentions and torture'’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/09/egypt-army-detentions-torture-accused

(30) = guardian.co.uk 11 Feb 2011 ‘Egyptian army backs Hosni Mubarak and calls for protesters to go home’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/11/egyptian-army-backs-hosni-mubarak

(31) = guardian.co.uk 13 Feb 2011 ‘Tahrir Square protesters defy army to keep Egypt's revolution alive’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/13/tahrir-square-protesters-egypt-revolution

(32) = guardian.co.uk 14 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt's army calls for end to strikes as workers grow in confidence’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/14/egypt-army-strikes-workers

(33) = NPR 14 Feb 2011 ‘Why Egypt's Military Cares About Home Appliances’, http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/02/10/133501837/why-egypts-military-cares-about-home-appliances

(34) = NPR 14 Feb 2011 ‘The Friday Podcast: Egypt's Military, Inc.’,http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/02/07/133503696/the-friday-podcast-egypts-military-inc

(35) = Primo Levi (1986) ‘The Drowned and the Saved’  - See last pages of ‘Conclusion’

(36) = Washington Post 30 Jan 2011 ‘Unrest tests Egyptian military and its crucial relationship with U.S.’,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/29/AR2011012904418.html ; ‘On Saturday, soldiers seemed largely to sympathize with the throngs of protesters.’

(37) = Reuters 11 Feb 2011 ‘Egypt army officer says 15 others join protesters’,http://af.reuters.com/article/egyptNews/idAFLDE71A01720110211?sp=true ; ‘An Egyptian army officer who joined protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square said on Friday 15 other middle-ranking officers had also gone over to the demonstrators. "The armed forces' solidarity movement with the people has begun," Major Ahmed Ali Shouman told Reuters by telephone just after dawn prayers. On Thursday evening Shouman told crowds in Tahrir that he had handed in his weapon and joined their protests demanding an immediate end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. "Some 15 officers ... have joined the people's revolution," he said, listing their ranks ranging from captain to lieutenant colonel. "Our goals and the people's are one."’

(38) = guardian.co.uk 08 Feb 2011 ‘France's prime minister spent family Christmas break as guest of Mubarak’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/08/france-francois-fillon-christmas-egypt-mubarak

(39) = Independent 06 Apr 2002 ‘Blair faces tax bill over Egypt holiday charity donation’,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/blair-faces-tax-bill-over-egypt-holiday-charity-donation-656562.html

(40) = guardian.co.uk 02 Feb 2011 ‘Tony Blair: Mubarak is 'immensely courageous and a force for good'’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/02/tony-blair-mubarak-courageous-force-for-good-egypt

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