Public perceptions of Egypt's military: From 1967 to 2012

Osman El Sharnoubi, Tuesday 5 Jun 2012

Analysts, historians draw comparisons between Egyptian military's tarnished reputation after 1967 defeat and the post-revolution falling out between army and people

1967 Middle East War
A convoy of Israeli tanks rolls through the Sinai peninsula during the 1967 Middle East War, widely known as the Six Day War. (Photo: Reuters)

"Will the month of defeat in the Six-Day War be transformed into the month of the greatest victory?"

The above question was posed one week ago on the official Facebook page of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The question refers to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, as well as to Egypt's looming presidential runoff.

The SCAF page suggested that Egyptians could replace the memory of the Naksa – the humiliating military 'setback' of June 1967 – with that of the anticipated announcement of Egypt's first freely elected president on 21 June 2012.

The new "victory" is supposed to be Egypt's post-revolution transition to democracy. But while the SCAF promotes itself as the benevolent guardian of this transition, its role is perceived differently by various political circles, many of which see the ruling military council as the country's most potent counter-revolutionary force.

The popularity of the Egyptian army – specifically its leadership – is currently at its lowest level since the dramatic defeat in 1967.

Images of disgraced Egyptian soldiers being held at gunpoint by their Israeli adversaries had haunted Egyptians in the years following the war. This humiliation was offset, however, in 1973, when Egypt launched a successful offensive that eventually led to the recovery of the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula and a controversial peace deal with the self-proclaimed Jewish state.

Since then, however, new images have entered the Egyptian psyche: those of armed Egyptian soldiers beating and arresting protesters – repeatedly – since the SCAF's mandate began on 11 February of last year.

Two scenes were especially memorable. One was in November, where a soldier drags the body of an unconscious or dead civilian before throwing into a pile of trash; in another, three soldiers brutally beat a young woman who is stripped of her clothes in the process. Both incidents occurred during different military crackdowns on sit-ins.

"The SCAF has placed a burden on the army worse than that placed on it in 1967," said Safwat El-Zayyat, a retired brigadier-general and strategic analyst who had participated in the Six-Day War. "Perception informs and creates reality," he added, insisting that negative perceptions of the army – caused by SCAF heavy-handedness – would only serve to harm Egypt's military.

El-Zayyat maintains, however, that, when drawing comparisons between how Egyptians view the army now and after 1967, context matters. He points out that the 1967 war had been fought with an external enemy, while the battle now is against domestic evils associated with the Egyptian regime, such as corruption, poverty and tyranny.

El-Zayyat says that, whereas the enemy had been easily identifiable in 1967, the regime, on the other hand, gradually came to permeate state institutions, including the military. The main mistake committed by the military leadership, he states, was failing to distance itself from the ruling regime.

Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Shaaban, secretary-general of the Egyptian Socialist Party and a student activist at the time of the 1967 defeat, drew a direct comparison between both situations.

Comparing popular perceptions of the army now and then, Shaaban believes that the opposite has occurred between both.

After 1967, says Shaaban, the first reaction by the Egyptian public was shock, followed by scathing attacks on Egypt's military leadership. This was followed by a reevaluation of the war and a new phase of national solidarity and cohesion. Soon, slogans advocating continued resistance to Israel proliferated and the relationship between the people and the army improved.

Shaaban is reminded of the slogans that rang out across Egypt after the SCAF assumed power following Mubarak's ouster. "The people and the army are one hand," protesters shouted, many of them climbing atop tanks to embrace beaming army officers. The relationship was thus enhanced, but – in contrast to what happened in 1967 – it soon began to decline.

"The military leadership lost a lot of points after carrying out virginity tests on female protesters; after the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes [during which the garbage scene occurred]; after the events of Qasr Al-Eini [in which the female protester was stripped of her clothes]," said Shaaban.

"The popular chant, 'The people and army are one hand,' became 'Down with [SCAF head] Field Marshal Tantawi ' and 'Down with military rule,'" he asserted.

Shaaban clarifies, however, that to criticise the military council is not to criticise the army itself. Many activists and commentators have tried to differentiate between the two, stressing that the military is a patriotic institution, with a rank and file consisting of Egyptian conscripts far removed from the leading generals and their – often unpopular – decisions.

Former ambassador and legal expert Ibrahim Yousri is quick to draw this distinction. "There's no space between the people and army," he said.

Yousri, who was in his 30s at the time of the 1967 war, said that, after the defeat, there was palpable grief at the national level. The pain was general, he stressed, not directed at the army; the soldiers themselves had been as miserable as the people.

Now, by contrast, the anger is directed firmly at the SCAF, said Yousri, since it is the ruling entity – not the army – that was at fault. Yousri echoes Shaaban's insistence on differentiating the institution of the Egyptian Armed Forces from its leaders.

El-Zayyat believes the only way forward now is the exit of the old guard (read the SCAF) from power and the establishment of a proper civilian-military relationship. "Civilians must rule over military men," he said.

The status of the military in Egypt's next constitution, meanwhile, is sure to prove a contentious subject. After recent changes in the public perception of the army, the privileges it had enjoyed for decades are sure now to come under greater scrutiny.

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