This post is written by my colleague, Allison Blough, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a fluent Arabic speaker, lived in Egypt between 2007 and 2010, and has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Arabic from Duke University.
With the media focused on Qaddafi’s death, it is important not to lose sight of the Arab world’s most populous and perhaps most important test case for emerging democracy: Egypt. For months, Egyptian criticism of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been mounting. With a transitional period characterized thus far more by an expansion of military power than a transfer to an elected civilian government, many Egyptians who once chanted “the army and the people are one hand” during January’s Tahrir protests now shout “the people want the fall of the [SCAF] field marshal.” On October 9, frustration turned to ire when more than two dozen mostly Coptic Christian protesters were killed, the majority by military armored vehicles and live ammunition.
Last Wednesday night, SCAF generals Mohamed al-Assar and Mahmoud Hegazy appeared on a popular Egyptian television program in what was billed as a frank discussion exploring SCAF’s failures and its plan to move Egypt forward. Thousands of questions were sent in by Egyptians via Facebook and mobile messaging, and millions of viewers around the country tuned in. The interview was a golden opportunity for SCAF to begin rebuilding confidence in its leadership, but within minutes it was clear that they were not up to the task.
Media personalities Mona al-Shazly and Ibrahim Eissa, the latter a journalist who was imprisoned for criticizing the Mubarak regime and who is known for his hard-hitting interviewing style, questioned Assar and Hegazy for nearly three hours. Credit is due to Arab audiences for watching political interviews for so long! Remarkably, the SCAF members stuck closely to a narrow set of talking points that focused on promoting unity and insisting that Egyptians should be more patient with the transitional government. Failing to admit even the smallest of mistakes in the “terrible incident” of Maspero, Assar attempted to explain away military vehicles crushing protesters as the natural response of a panicked soldier, saying:
A soldier driving an armored vehicle in this way, with this strength, in the middle of thousands of people in a narrow space, if he intended to run over people…[would have hit] no less than two or three hundred people.
Defending SCAF’s actions rather than admitting its serious mistakes, avoiding questions, and offering little in the way of accountability, the SCAF members’ tone was reminiscent of the tone-deafness of the former regime. Moreover, the generals repeated earlier claims that infiltrators were to blame for much of the violence, yet provided no evidence to identify those infiltrators or where they might have come from.
At several points in the discussion, the generals became noticeably uncomfortable with the line of questioning, particularly that of Ibrahim Eissa. Interestingly, Eissa’s planned appearance the following day on another popular television program was cancelled, reportedly by the SCAF. No explanation has been offered for the cancellation. Why? Such military interference in the media, which has happened on more than one occasion since the revolution, does not reassure the Egyptian people of the military’s commitment to democracy.
The continued inability of the SCAF to effectively respond to the needs of the Egyptian people is worrying, and Wednesday’s interview was just another example of this. The Egyptian people led a peaceful revolution for democracy because they wanted their opinions and voices to be reflected at the highest levels of government. Though SCAF may not completely lose the support of the Egyptian masses in the near future, its repeated missteps and focus on “stability” over progress continue to damage its reputation in the eyes of liberals and conservatives alike, threatening the growth of democracy in Egypt.