Egyptians At Odds Over Military's Role In Government
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
In Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down without protestors having to take up arms. But five months after his ouster, Cairo is still roiling. Demonstrators marched on Egypt's defense ministry a few nights ago and were attacked by gangs of rock-throwing men. It was an intense fight, with firebombs lighting up the streets and teargas in the air.
As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the conflict is over the military and the role it will play in the new Egypt.
MIKE SHUSTER: Egypt's generals have been in power since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, and many of the young protesters who have occupied Tahrir Square for nearly three weeks don't like it. So they took to the streets on Saturday afternoon, only to be met with violence.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
SHUSTER: The march had not been planned. It emerged spontaneously. The target was the defense ministry, the seat of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's ruling body for the past six months.
First, the protesters were pelted by rocks, then fire bombs. Finally, the riot police moved in, firing what appeared to be live ammunition over their heads, then salvos of teargas. Health officials say more than 100 were injured and taken to hospitals. Egyptians have been arguing about the role the military should play since February. This clash is certain to make that debate sharper.
Like most of the young demonstrators who fault the military leaders for their reluctance to speed up the pace of political change in Egypt, Rabab ElMahdi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, believes the primary goal of the nation's military leaders is to protect their own role in the state.
They are so worried that any kind of structural change might be threatening for their interest.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is in the process of laying out a blueprint for political change in Egypt; planning for elections starts in September, parliamentary elections in November, perhaps the writing of a new constitution after that with the goal of holding presidential elections sometime early next year.
As for the military itself, there's a lot of talk about endowing the generals with the power to protect the state, placing the military above the state. Professor ElMahdi does not believe the military should have that power.
RABAB ELMAHDI: And it should just be one of many institutions of the state that's under the scrutiny of democratic institutions and not an institution that's above or beyond the state.
SHUSTER: Others believe the military is genuine in its commitment as caretaker while Egypt sorts out its political future. One of those is Hisham Kassem, a longtime human rights campaigner.
HISHAM KASSEM: The military will hand over power once the elections are over, okay, and go back to the barracks.
SHUSTER: Kassem finds himself in the awkward position of critic of the young occupiers of Tahrir Square and their confrontational approach to the military. He worries that episodes like Saturday night's violence might prompt the generals to hold on to power, citing chaos in the streets as a threat to the nation. Not that Kassem believes the military has managed things perfectly since February.
KASSEM: They have made mistakes, but they are doing their best, and they are sincere about going back to the barracks. The top brass say we know how to run an army, not a country.
SHUSTER: There are arguments among the young demonstrators in Tahrir Square as well, and not all take a dim view of the military. Twenty-six year old Ramy Mohammed Abdallah(ph) says he comes to the square every day to protest the slow pace of change. He says he wants a civilian government, but he quickly adds the military is trustworthy.
RAMY MOHAMMED ABDALLAH: The Egyptian army is good, very good. I was in the military. I was in the army two years ago, and I think it is the only organization in Egypt which is good until now.
SHUSTER: The military has its roots deep in the Egyptian economy as well, another reason to curb its power, says Professor ElMahdi.
ELMAHDI: It has 30 percent of the Egyptian economy in different sectors. All these are interests that they do not want to lose if you bring about real democracy with accountability, transparency. This is something they can't afford.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
SHUSTER: On Saturday night, the military's doubters and its defenders clashed head on. The army is protecting the thugs, some protesters shouted, and we didn't throw a single stone. In the aftermath, Egypt's military rulers insist they remain committed to democracy, but they appear less tolerant than ever of their ongoing confrontation with Egypt's young protesters. Mike Shuster, NPR News. Cairo.
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