The army, legitimate force and the interim phase

Samer Soliman , Wednesday 19 Oct 2011

Action must be taken to consign the use of hired thugs to Egypt's past, especially as parliamentary elections approach

I tried hard last week to overcome my sorrow and shock at the tragedy of Bloody Sunday at Maspero, and find out the truth about what happened and the place of this event in the overall picture of the interim phase in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is the main player that decides the pace and path of change. I will share what I discovered, but must first remind readers that the writer is expressing what is in his heart and conscience despite lack of information. What I write can be retracted or amended immediately if more information is revealed about this incident and other incidents of violence during the transitional phase.

I believe the military police present at Maspero were issued an order to use force in dispersing the peaceful demonstration there, which resulted in the death of tens of young civilians and soldiers, and injuring hundreds of others. I do not know who took the decision to disperse the protest using force, but he is the primary person responsible for the blood that was shed and the terrible sectarian tensions that followed these events.

Will government investigations reveal the identity of who issued this order? I doubt it. This will only be uncovered through an investigation by a body independent from the interim authority. It is illogical for the accused — the interim authority — to investigate itself.

Why was the decision to use force in dispersing protests a mistake and why does the one who gave the orders deserve to be severely punished? First, because peaceful demonstration is a legitimate right that the Egyptian people grasped with their blood during the glorious revolution, and any suspension or obstruction of this right is similar to a coup against the revolution. Without the right to peaceful demonstration, we will lose one of our main weapons in resisting injustice and corruption. Second, dispersing such a large crowd in a small area as Maspero could only result in a terrible catastrophe, as we saw. These orders were given in ignorance and without a thought to the lives of citizens, whether civilians or soldiers.

In order to fully understand the tragedy of Bloody Sunday, we must closely inspect the sectarian dimension of the incident, in order for it not to be blurred and the overall complex picture lost upon us, since sectarianism is one of its dimensions but not the only one. No doubt, the actions of the military police against protestors had sectarian overtones, as shown on official television during interviews with injured soldiers. This sectarian overtone comes as no surprise to any rational person who lives in this country and knows that sectarian fanaticism has penetrated large sectors of society and swept across many state institutions.

Soldiers and officers are part of this society and the army is one of the state institutions that replenish its human resources from the people, and therefore it is only natural that sectarian overtones are present in army ranks. The pertinent question now is what should we do to protect this national institution from falling into the swamp of sectarianism? A nationalistic state and patriotic army are the most precious assets of the Egyptian people in a region full of armies controlled by sectarianism or tribalism, such as the ones in Syria, Libya, Iraq and others. It is a last shield of defence at a time when some fanatic forces are trying to impose their control over the people of Egypt, by transforming Muslims in Egypt into a sect that is terrified of an imagined threat from minorities. I will discuss this pivotal issue at a later date.

What should not be lost amid the sectarian fog of the incident is the issue of politics and violence in Egypt. The state, by definition, is the entity that can legally exercise force and it cannot be a state without an armed police capable of enforcing the law by force on outlaws. All states use violence against some of their citizens, the difference between democratic and despotic states is that the former heavily ration force when necessary and within the law, while the latter uses excessive violence and breaks the law. The second difference is that democratic states have other means to keep matters under control, such as negotiations and persuasion, while tyrants mostly rely on violence because they are incapable of persuading anyone.

Over the past decades, Egypt has witnessed a frightening and tragic escalation in the state’s use of force as a tool to manage politics, and the police were given almost complete immunity to practice torture and sometimes kill citizens. Only a handful of officers and police personnel who have tortured and killed have faced trials. In fact, state agencies used excessive illegal force when they sought the help of the “private sector” to handle tens of thousands of criminals who carry out violence acts during elections and on other occasions. The needed force is beyond the capabilities of security agencies and mandates the assistance of the private sector.

The glorious January revolution broke the back of security agencies and stripped them of their immunity. This is why the ex-minister of interior is standing trial today, accused of killing protestors, and the former president himself is also facing similar charges. Accordingly, it is appropriate today for police forces to hesitate in using force, which I believe is the reason behind the unofficial “strike” by the police in carrying out its duties. They have not been taught how to manage situations except through excessive and illegal force, and therefore today are incapable of carrying out their normal duties.

It seems that the interim authority, born from the old regime and therefore carrying the same authoritarian virus, has resorted to using the military police, that have high immunity since they cannot be prosecuted except in military courts, in order to maintain order. Accordingly, over the past months we have witnessed horrifying crimes of torture against citizens, violation of their human dignity, and forcing girls to undergo virginity tests that are in reality an act of sexual abuse. The armed forces are a victim of the interim authority, just as the police was a victim of the Mubarak regime.

The tragedy is not limited to forcing the army to use force against the people. The interim authority has gone further and has regretfully resorted to hiring thugs once again, just as the previous regime had nurtured them, to assist in the violence that the military police cannot carry out by themselves. These were the perpetrators of the Abbasiya tragedy recently when they overran a peaceful protest that attempted to reach the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. We also saw them in the events at Maspero, although to a lesser degree than the incident in Abbasiya, where gangs fought alongside military police forces.

I believe that lack of security and extensive hooliganism is not based on a “plot” by SCAF to create a state of chaos to justify its continuation in power, as many of my friends and colleagues have insisted. The interests of the military institution, as I stated in a previous article, is to partially (not entirely) withdraw from power and hand it over to civilian politicians. I believe hooliganism and lax security are rooted in the fact that the interim authority needs to use force to manage the interim phase, because it does not know how to use the tools of persuasion, or because violence is necessary in order for the interim stage to conclude in an acceptable way, or for both reasons combined.

Public conscience forgives state violence and aspires for it out of hope that it would decrease general violence in society. But in reality, violence by the state and violence by society are two faces of the same coin and are strongly connected. First, because organised hooliganism operates under the supervision of state agencies and is being managed in a political setting. Second, because the general spread of violent culture in society results in a cycle of violence and counter-violence, and there is no way to control the violence and hooliganism in Egypt without resisting violence itself in all its forms — whether perpetrated by the state or by society — through force that is permitted by common law. Emergency law no longer exists since the January revolution tore it down and any attempt to revive it will be illegitimate. Every citizen has the right to benefit from the protection of common law, even if this citizen is Hosni Mubarak or Habib Al-Adly.

Public conscience forgives violence as long as the interim phase will end and we can turn over a new leaf. The problem is that the transitional authority and its military leadership is not experienced in using force on the domestic front, which could bring down the temple over everyone’s head. We must stay alert. It is not an issue of violating human rights, it’s a matter of an interim phase that could push us to chaos and tragedy that would end the aspirations of this nation in terms of progress and prosperity for many years to come. The price would be mostly paid by the children and youth of the country.

We are moving quickly towards parliamentary elections that will have no credibility or legitimacy if extensive force is used during balloting, and if no immediate steps are taken to control organised criminal gangs or at least for the transitional authority not to use them. The majority of the people and peaceful political forces do not possess any tools of force, and hence handling the electoral process through violence will remove them from the process and only allow those who are capable of using force or confronting it to become elected to parliament. These represent only a small sector of Egyptian society.

We must be committed to resist any form of violence, even if it is practiced against our political adversaries. When violence prevails it does not make a distinction between someone on the Left or a liberal or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or a Salafi. We should remember the victims and martyrs of the regimes of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Mubarak and Sadat. We must vow to reject election campaigning if the state appears to be resorting to violence or allowing it to occur.

We should rely on security experts and human rights activists to inform us about security conditions, and on this basis a decision to boycott the elections would be the correct step to take if necessary. Those who are using illegal force should be cognizant that history repeats itself, and just as the people were able to strip Habib Al-Adly and Hosni Mubarak of their immunity, they can do the same to anyone who is now using force against the citizenry.

The writer is associate professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo.

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