Throughout the coverage of the uprising in Egypt, we’ve been repeatedly told that Egyptians trust their military more than any other part of the government, that it is a revered institution in the country. When military vehicles first appeared on the streets, after the police had been disbursed, the protesters greeted them with celebration. Now, while Hosni Mubarak’s power slips away even as he recklessly clings to it, the future of the country seems to be increasingly in the hands of the military. Is this a good thing? And if it’s true that the military is so trusted, is this trust well placed?
Mubarak himself rose to power through the ranks of the military, and we saw once again in his defiant speech last night how much he feels his authority rests on tales of military heroism. (The national Military Museum is similarly rife with propaganda that prefers silly glory over accuracy.) He became president after the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat—a military man himself, part of the military coup that overthrew the monarchy in 1952—by Khalid Islambouli, also a soldier. Mubarak immediately began a brutal crackdown on dissent in the country, using torture and secret prisons. The choice of his recently-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, is an indication that Mubarak might have something similar in mind right now. Suleiman—a Soviet-trained soldier—headed the Egyptian intelligence services from 1993 to the end of last month (though his position only became public in 2000). During that time he was a notorious torturer and worked closely with three US administrations to do the war-on-terror’s dirty work in Egypt. Already there’s evidence that the Egyptian military is torturing protesters now.
Which brings us to the US connections more generally. Throughout this crisis, Mubarak has been insisting that the uprisings are being driven by foreigners. In fact, it is only thanks to massive US aid—and military aid in particular—that he has managed to remain in office all these decades. (This was particularly evident when we saw that the tear-gas canisters police used against the protesters said “Made in USA” on them.) Since Sadat’s 1978 peace treaty with Israel, the US has funneled almost $40 billion to the Egyptian military; last year, $1.3 billion went to the military, compared to only $250 million in economic aid. For decades, Egyptian soldiers have trained at US bases and military colleges, forging close ties with the US military at the highest levels on both sides. The legacy of this friendship is perfectly evident in the equipment on the streets of Cairo, where M1A1 Abrams tanks mingle with the protesters and F-16 Fighting Falcons are flying overhead. It’s hard to imagine, really, any institution in the Egyptian government more vulnerable to foreign influence.
Militaries are organizations designed to get what they want at the barrel of a gun, and putting them in charge of a country can’t help but be dangerous. Martial law is always a bad thing. But the Egyptian military in particular, with its history of torture and deep dependence on foreign aid, hardly seems like a player likely to have the best interests of Egyptians at heart. The Egyptian people should resist the temptation to trust their military. They should trust themselves, and win the military over. The power, as they’ve shown the world so spectacularly over the last three weeks, is really theirs.