One-sided military dialogue leaves participants cold

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 2 Jun 2011

Conducted by a panel of three military officers and largely free of audience interaction, the first dialogue between the ruling military council and revolutionary youth coalitions fails to live up to its billing

protestors outside the meeting hall against military trials (Photo by: Mai Shaheen)
protestors outside the meeting hall against military trials (Photo by: Mai Shaheen

The first meeting of the military council’s dialogue with revolutionary youth coalitions was far from a success at the army-owned El-Galaa theatre. Apart from a striking lack of organisation, some of the attendees from different political groups were clearly unhappy for having no chance to directly speak to the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which prompted disorder and frustration throughout the session.
Strict security measures were applied before and after the two-hour session. Mobiles and laptops were not allowed into the hall, a regulation that stirred up more chaos at the end of the day. Photographers had a hard time getting in after security refused to allow cameras inside, although television channels were covering the event.

Shortly after the meeting started, a protest began in front of the theatre. Banners expressed the protesters’ wrath that demands of the January 25 Revolution remain unmet. They also repeatedly chanted against Egyptian General-Commander of the Armed Forces and Defence Minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, saying he should step down and stand trial. The protest was triggered against the military trials and alleged violations committed by the military police against detained protesters.

A group of pro-military demonstrators gathered behind a closed gate facing the protest to express their support for the army, in what seemed to be a retort to the rally on the street.

It took a couple of hours until the participants took their seats, wrote down questions and handed them to military personnel in order for the military council members to answer their queries during the last part of the meeting.

Major-General Ismail Etman, one of the most recognisable faces among the ruling military council as he delivers the Army’s statements on national television, opened the event with a short speech.

“It was my honour to give the first speech after the revolution had succeeded and now I am also honoured to start the first meeting between the military council and 150 coalitions,” said Etman, whose words were met with an ovation.

The rest of the session was chaired by three generals: Mohamed El-Assar, Mahmoud Hegazi and Mamdouh Shaheen. The three keynote speakers, sat next to each other on one desk in the middle of the stage, are also well known after making a handful of television appearances.

El-Assar called on the attendees to observe a minute's silence in memory of the uprising’s martyrs before kicking off the meeting by reiterating its objective – communicating with the youths of the revolution – and referring to the “vital” role of the Army during the 18-day revolt.

Hegazi later said: “Army troopers were trained to protect the nation and secure its borders, not to kill our people or to threaten them, so it was no surprise that we took the side of the protesters during the revolution. It was clear to us that the protesters did not present the minority, it was a whole pollution that was calling for basic rights and needs.”

Repetitive interruptions soon started from the attendees. Every few minutes one stood and chanted for a certain demand before the rest of the participants called on them to sit down and be silent. The military trio, consequently, had to adopt a harsh tone more than once. El-Assar even threatened to call off the session.

“The people want the application of the referendum,” was the most common and loudest chant during the meeting.

“Everyone wants their demands to be fulfilled right away because the previous regime left a lot of people without many basics needs. But those who want their demands to become reality think only from a political point of view. On the other hand, we take into consideration safety and economics,” El-Assar told the assembled youths, prompting more interruptions.

El-Assar also warned of the media’s influence, saying some people are trying to defame the military council. “Eighty two persons assailed the Supreme Council in one week. You need to be aware that some people are trying to make us look bad and that is really dangerous,” he stated.

Shaheen mainly dwelt on legal issues concerning the constitution, the newly enacted laws and, more importantly, military trials for civilians. “Neither the civilian judiciary nor the police were functioning, so there had to be other judicial procedures,” he explained. “The military judiciary is independent and has always been just… firm verdicts were returned against the culprits.”

The last part of the meeting was opened up to questions from the audience. With so many questions submitted, the trio only answered a few frequently-asked ones concerning the police’s negligible presence on the streets, the dismantled State Security, the local council elections and the trials of the former regime figures. They pretty much repeated previous statements on the subjects.

“Security was terrible in the early days of the uprising, now it is much better of course and it keeps on improving,” Hegazi replied. “Internal security is the police’s duty, the army and the people should help them do their job … people should stand up against thugs if they met any.

“We prematurely graduated students from the police academy and allowed law school graduates to apply for police jobs; we did all we can to bolster the police department… the State Security has been completely dismantled, the [newly-formed] National Security has a whole different structure and policies,” he elaborated.

Concerning the speed of legal procedures against ousted president Hosni Mubarak and other former officials accused of corruption, Shaheen said: “We are keen that no injustice befall any of the defendants… gathering evidence and tracking someone’s financial assets usually takes time.”

By the end of the session, attendees voiced their dissatisfaction but tensions were soon cooled down at the playing of the national anthem. “I don’t think this dialogue will take us anywhere,”  said Mohktar El-Dardiri, who is not affiliated with any coalition, when the event was over. “I honestly have my doubts that Mubarak is detained in the first place. I don’t feel the gains of the revolution.”

Mohamed Safwat, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth Coalition, said: “I have faith in the Armed Forces, although I disagree with them on certain things… today’s session was one-sided, we cannot describe it as a dialogue.”

Retreading old ground was another complaint. Mohamed Sabri, a member of the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, said: “There was nothing new said during the session and honestly I started to worry over the future of this country. The attitude of the army is not reassuring either.”

Thirty-five political groups and parties boycotted the event. The most prominent to do so were the April 6 Youth Movement, the Revolution Youth Coalition, the National Front of Justice ‎and Democracy, the Union of Maspero Youth, Tahrir Doctors (the Field Hospital), and the ‎Progressive Revolution Youth group.‎

The National Association ‎for Change and its affiliates – ‎the Free Revolutionaries Front, the Alliance of Egypt’s Revolutionaries and the Free Egypt ‎Revolution Coalition – were among the groups to accept the invitation.

When the meeting was over, it took a couple of hours for thousand or so attendees to retrieve their belongings, which they had had to leave with soldiers outside the hall.

The evening came to a close amid chaotic scenes as Army officers called everyone back into the hall where they attempted to return bags and phones over a microphone.

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