For decades, the Egyptian military has operated an economy within an economy in Egypt. With the tacit support of the United States, the armed forces own and operate a sprawling network of for-profit businesses. The military runs factories that manufacture televisions, bottled water and other consumer goods. Its companies obtain public land at discounted prices. And it pays no taxes and discloses little to civilian officials.
Within weeks of Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February, experts predicted that the Egyptian military would refuse to relinquish its vast economic holdings or privileged position in society.
“Protecting its businesses from scrutiny and accountability is a red line the military will draw,” Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military at the Naval Postgraduate School, told The New York Times. “And that means there can be no meaningful civilian oversight.”
Protesters who are crossing that red line this week should be applauded, not oppressed. Egypt’s tumultuous revolution should be completed.
In increasingly brazen fashion, Egypt’s military has tried to usurp the revolt that toppled Mubarak in eighteen days and is transforming the Middle East. The protests this week are a legitimate response to those moves.
In a welcome concession, Egypt’s 76-year-old army chief, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, offered in a televised speech to hand over power to a civilian president by next July. Protesters are right, though, to react with scepticism. The military has botched a transition it initially said would last six months.
In a blistering report issued on Monday, Amnesty International accused the country’s military of suppressing dissent as harshly as the Mubarak regime. The report assailed its violent response to this week’s protests, which have left 36 people dead and more than 1250 wounded.
“The aims and aspirations of the January 25 revolution have been crushed,” Philip Luther, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director, said in statement. “The brutal and heavy-handed response to protests in the last few days bears all the hallmarks of the Mubarak era.”
The ruling military council has refused to revoke the country’s Mubarak-era “emergency law,” which allows arrest without trial and sends civilians to military courts. As of August, roughly 12,000 Egyptian civilians had been tried in “grossly unfair” military courts, according to Amnesty. At least 13 have been sentenced to death. At the same time, the military government has “ruthlessly suppressed” civilians who criticize military rule, including journalists, bloggers and striking workers.
Maikel Nabilk Sanad, a blogger, was sentenced to three years in prison in April for refusing military service and criticizing the armed forces. Scores of other bloggers and journalists have been called in for questioning by military prosecutors in what is widely seen as an effort to intimidate the press.
Egypt’s military is not alone in its for-profit pursuits. For decades during the Cold War, Latin American militaries oversaw vast business holdings, enriching elite officers and dominating their countries. Pakistan’s military continues to follow the same model, operating a network of military farms, trusts and businesses that receive scant civilian oversight and spark resentment among average Pakistanis.
Around the world, though, military rule is in decline. In recent years, Turkey’s military has lost its once iron grip on that country. Myanmar’s military rulers, apparently eager for international investment, recently approved elections that are sparking hope of democratic change after 49 years of totalitarian rule. If Egypt’s economy is ever going to develop the growth, jobs and dynamism that will foster stability, whole segments of it cannot be unilaterally controlled by the military.
With new protests convulsing Cairo, the Obama administration cannot act as cautiously as it did when the first anti-Mubarak demonstrations emerged in Tahrir Square in January. Many young people in Egypt and across the Middle East viewed the White House’s carefully calibrated statements as tacit American support for the Egyptian autocrat.
For decades, Egyptians have perceived the United States as an all-powerful force supporting Mubarak, a former Air Force general, and de facto military rule. Since 1979, the United States provided roughly $40 billion in military aid to Egypt in exchange for its signing of the Camp David peace accords with Israel. The amount has reduced over time but Egypt still receives roughly $1.3 billion a year in American military assistance, making it one of the largest recipients of American aid in the world.
In October, new warning signs emerged regarding the military but the White House remained largely silent. First, troops killed 25 Coptic Christians protesters in Cairo, prompting complaints from Christians and Muslims alike of excessive force. Then, the military blocked civilian inquiries into the deaths.
Days later, members of the ruling military council gave confusing statements about when a handover to civilian rule would actually occur. Two council members said in interviews that they planned to delay handing over power until a civilian president was elected in 2013. They also suggested that the country’s new parliament would remain subordinate to the military.
Parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on Monday in Egypt should be held. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning to the Egyptian military last week should be amplified.
The road ahead in Egypt will be turbulent. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are likely to win the largest number of seats in upcoming parliamentary elections. No politician or political party has emerged with a vision that will ease the anger filling Tahrir Square.
Yet there is no turning back. As the Arab Spring’s most pivotal revolution reaches its crescendo, Washington should not blink. As long as Egypt’s Islamists continue to promise to abide by democratic norms, they should be allowed to participate in elections and governments. Over time, electoral politics and pressure from voters to produce jobs, public services and accountability will moderate them.
Continued military rule in Egypt is not a recipe for stability, it is an antiquated fantasy.
David Rohde is a Reuters columnist.