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Angry demonstrators believe the army has failed to break decisively with Mubarak’s era and believe it will manoeuvre to keep a hand on the levers of power even after turning over day-to-day government to civilians.


No one doubts the army will proceed with Egypt’s first free and fair parliamentary election in November and a presidential vote afterwards, nor does anyone expect that the balloting will be accompanied by the rigging routinely practised in Mubarak’s time.

But many demonstrators who marched on the Defence Ministry and military bases in Cairo and other cities last weekend question whether the army, which has provided Egypt’s rulers for six decades, is ready to cede decisive authority to civilians.

“The army is going through the motions of transitioning to civilian government but the foot-dragging indicates they really want to remain in control even after a new government is elected,” Mohamed Fahmy, a protester in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, said, echoing an increasingly common view among protesters.

The military’s reputation was sky-high in February when soldiers ordered into the streets during the anti-Mubarak uprising did not fire on demonstrators, implicitly backing calls for democratisation. But the army’s image has been tarnished since then as protesters have accused the military brass of being slow to pursue reforms and sweep out corruption.

Protesters in Cairo on Saturday marched on the Defence Ministry to demand root-and-branch change but were blocked by a cordon of barbed wire and troops. The demonstrators clashed with stone-throwing men, while the army did little to intervene.

Activists say the army is now acting more like the authorities under Mubarak. For example, they say, the army has not fully purged the interior and justice ministries, although there has been sweep-out of many officers and officials.

“Egypt’s rulers have always come from army ranks. The army considers what happened six months ago as an uprising against Mubarak’s succession plans, not an actual revolution that changes power structures,” said Ammar Ali Hasan, head of Middle East Studies Centre. He was referring to widespread perceptions that Mubarak had been grooming his son Gamal for the presidency. “It wants to remain in power either through direct or indirect means,” he added.

The army insists it is not hanging on to the old order. Deputy Defence Minister General Mohamed al-Asar, speaking in Washington, said the army was “not an extension of the former regime,” according to Egyptian media.

The military says it has no desire to stay in government and that it is sticking to the timetable to ensure a smooth transition. A parliamentary election is scheduled for November, two months later than many expected but still within a broad framework laid out earlier this year.

But handing over day-to-day government does not necessarily mean the army plans to relinquish the reins of power, analysts say. Instead, they expect the army to slip into the political wings from where it will be able to wield strong influence.

“The concern of the army is making sure it remains shielded as a ‘state within a state’ (so) that no one questions the establishment about the budget or the establishment’s internal matters,” military analyst Safwat Zayaat said.

Analysts point to the role the military has played in Turkey and Pakistan as possible models for Egypt’s generals.

Privately, officers say there are interests to protect. The military runs factories, builds roads and owns large tracts of real estate. Top officers have traditionally expected senior posts as sinecures when they leave the military.

“The army undoubtedly has interests to keep … as Egypt’s future political scene is mapped,” an army source told Reuters.

But publicly the army says it is moving as swiftly as possible to civilian rule and has urged Egyptians to be patient.

“We are committed to pressing ahead in turning Egypt into a modern civilian state,” Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades who now heads the military council, said in a televised address on Saturday.

Protesters remain suspicious. The clashes in Cairo erupted after Tantawi spoke. “The people want to bring down the field marshal!” some chanted. It is an increasingly common refrain.

The army has praised the youths who led Egypt’s uprising but has lashed out at the April 6 movement, the group which played a leading role in rallying Egyptians against Mubarak and is now at the forefront of criticism of the army.

“April 6 is seeking to sow sedition by driving a wedge between the army and the people,” the army council said in its Communique No. 69. It also said it was taking steps to prevent the group achieving its goal.

But the army source said views on how to proceed varied. “The council is by no means homogenous. There are generals who are more understanding and more sympathetic to the demands of protesters than others,” he said.

Activists said there had been pressure on founders of the Facebook page “We are All Khaled Said”, which led the online calls to oust Mubarak, to stop posting calls for street rallies.

“The page helped trigger the revolution. Now it is under pressure from security and is no longer in the lead,” Amr Gharbeia, an Egyptian blogger told Reuters.

April 6 say the army’s criticism is designed to discredit the movement but that the group will not ease the pressure.

“The council takes ongoing street protests to be a challenge to its authority and we consider protesting peacefully an indication that changes are needed and those heading the transitional government are falling behind the spirit of Tahrir,” said Mohamed Adel, spokesman of April 6.

Some other groups have also rallied in support.

“The military council is not the army but a council with a specific political mandate authorised by the people to run the country in this transitional period. The people have the right to keep it or banish the council,” the Muslim Brotherhood youth and other groups said in a joint statement.

But there are divisions too in the protest movement. Mainstream voices in the Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised Islamist group, have been more cautious in any criticism.

The group spent decades being repressed by Mubarak’s security forces and is now enjoying unprecedented freedoms, something analysts say it is wary of squandering by angering the army.

Filed in: World News

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