Leadership: The Egyptian Dilemma


June 7, 2011:  It appears that the military government replacing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may not be quite as benevolent (or freedom-loving) as the masses originally thought. For one thing, the military has already begun to practice, albeit on a much-reduced scale, that age-old practice of Middle East/Arab governments everywhere: arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and mistreatment of dissidents. The latest allegations are that a group of women were arrested by the Egyptian Army earlier this year and beaten severely and electrocuted by military police while in custody, then threatened with trumped-up prostitution charges. Their crime was apparently the fact that, during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, they shared the same tent with some males. 

Egypt is currently going through a tremendous amount of political, social, and religious change, as well as demands for more freedom. This is rousing both negative and positive elements in Egyptian society. For one thing, corrupt and despotic government ministers are being brought to account for their behavior during Mubarak's rule. In a land where the police and paramilitary security forces were once seemingly invincible, the former Interior Minister (the guy who controlled all the secret police forces) was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering and could possibly be sentenced to death if found guilty of ordering police to use live ammunition during the uprising in early 2011. Mubarak himself is currently under arrest, despite his poor health. 

In all, these are good changes for Egypt. The vast majority of abuses committed during Mubarak's rule were perpetrated by the hated police and domestic intelligence agencies, not the regular armed forces (unlike Syria). But the new generals and politicians running the country seem to have no qualms about imprisoning or possibly even hanging former members of the secret police. 

Unfortunately, with the army in charge, Egyptian soldiers do not seem to be behaving much better, than Egyptian policemen, in mistreating people in their custody. None of this should be surprising. Armies, police forces, and security organs throughout the Arab world have institutionalized, accepted, and practiced illegal and abusive arrests and tactics so pervasively and for so many decades that it is simply accepted as a routine practice (except, for the most part, in Israel and sometimes in Turkey). Sadly, it is often considered a novelty to find an Arab police officer who does not beat or electrocute people, or take bribes. Still, the Army have not engaged in the kinds of sweeping mass detentions and widespread terror that every Egyptian government since Nasser has practiced. 

Part of the reason the new military government may find itself accused of the same crimes as the former government comes from something deep-seated in Egyptian society. That is seeing the military, especially the Army, as a near-sacred institution. In some ways, this is a good thing. The Egyptian Army, since 1952, has not played an active role in running the country, instead spending most of its time fighting wars or training to fight wars. Its reputation is further bolstered by its relatively high standards (for an Arab country) of equipment and training. Unfortunately, the Egyptian military is also extremely sensitive about its reputation and image, and is showing itself likely to arrest anyone who says something bad about it. 

This sensitivity to real or perceived insults to their "honor" could make or break the reputation and image, both at home and abroad, of the Egyptian Army. The situation will be particularly difficult in the next year as the country (hopefully) transitions to democracy. Currently, the Egyptian Army enjoys a very good reputation domestically and internationally. Internationally, because of Egypt's strategic locations, its high-quality weaponry and equipment (the country manufactures a lot of Western military gear domestically under license). Fairly high standards of training and discipline  and its reluctance to engage in Syrian-style massacre and repression, mean the army is widely (especially overseas) respected. Domestically, the Army has never really been involved in internal politics, preferring to defend the country but remaining a powerful institution. Unfortunately, this kind of reputation, in a country where the government is historically reviled by the public, takes years to build and can easily be destroyed within six months if the Egyptian generals decide to become increasingly oppressive. Meanwhile, it's generally considered that the Egyptians and Jordanians have the highest training standards in the Arab world. This can be seen by the frequency with which the United States conducts joint exercises with Egypt and Jordan. But while the Jordanians have high quality here, the Egyptians are more noted for lots of Western weapons and equipment, and troops who are only marginally better than those in other Arab states.

For the moment, however, it is difficult to tell which way the generals will go. The many foreign contacts Egyptians have developed over the years, are advising restraint. But if it appears that Islamic radicals are gaining too much control, the generals may feel they have no choice but to get more involved.



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