When former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power in February, thousands of Egyptian protesters celebrating in Tahrir cheered for their nation’s all-powerful army.
“Egyptians and the military are one!” screamed the victorious demonstrators, many chanting from the backs of army tanks parked just outside the square.
But almost nine months later, with the army still in power, some Egyptians have had a change of heart.
Many have since accused Egypt’s ruling military council of being slow - or in some cases actually unwilling - to implement real political and social reform in the Arab world’s most populous nation. Critics say that the most autocratic hallmarks of Mubarak’s thirty-year rule - illegal detention under a despised state of emergency, torture, quashing the independent media, delaying the transfer of power to civilian rule, and forcibly preventing the freedom of assembly - have reappeared under the transitional leadership of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
With just over one month before the nation’s first free election in the post-Mubarak era, is Egypt’s military actually committed to implementing real political reform?
This question was the subject of a controversial town-hall style debate held Wednesday in a Cairo suburb, sponsored by The Doha Debates, a television program broadcast by the BBC. The Doha Debates was founded by a Qatari nonprofit organization funded by the tiny Gulf sheikdom.
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The format of the Wednesday's debate pitted two advocates for the motion ("This House believes that the military is not interested in real reform") against two opposing viewpoints, and was moderated by venerable journalist Tim Sebastian. After brief opening statements, Sebastian challenged each contention before the audience weighed in with their own questions.
On the for side, Heba Morayef (a researcher for Human Rights Watch) and Mohamed Fahmy Menza (a founder of Egypt’s new Freedom Party) meticulously outlined the military’s abuses and failures since February, questioned the “impunity” that soldiers in the army still enjoy, and argued that SCAF does not understand what real reform or true political participation means to Egyptians.
“This is a clear case of bad management. What Egyptians are requesting from the military is a [political and economic] plan, and this is not happening,” argued Menza.
Defending Egypt’s military, former army general Sameh Seif Elyazal (now a researcher at the Gomhouria Center for Political and Security Studies) and Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan (a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo) asserted that the army only reluctantly assumed power at the behest of the Egyptian people.
“The people gave the military the power,” said Elyazal. “The military does not want to stay in power.”
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The arguments on both sides, while passionate and informed, were mostly predictable. The team challenging the rule of the army was unable to present plausible solutions to their complaints, despites pleas from Sebastian and the audience. Instead they threw the responsibility back to Egypt’s military to provide the plan.
Menza stumbled when asked by Sebastian, “How much more change do you expect after only 9 months?”
One obstacle in Wednesday’s debate - and possibly one of the biggest criticisms leveled against Egypt’s ruling military council - was that the team defending the army seemed unwilling to listen to the other side. Sebastian, a seasoned moderator, struggled at times to contain the heated back-and-forth and repeated interruptions.
The military defenders also resorted to frequent finger-pointing, blaming both Egypt’s police forces and some mysterious outside force for the nation’s ongoing security woes.
“The foreign hands are there. Security is not in place and there is a weak government, that’s why they’re here now,” said Elyazel, who mentioned Israel and Iran as two possible intruders into the country’s domestic affairs.
Frustratingly, the debate rarely focused on opinions or the varied approaches to public policy issues facing the country. Instead, disagreements often revolved around basic facts. When Morayef, one of the most composed arguers of the night, presented documentary evidence of abuse at the hands of Egypt’s military, Elyazal responded with skepticism.
“I do not trust any video tape,” said the former general, referring to widely distributed film footage of military and police officers torturing two detainees with electric stun-guns and repeated slaps.
Later in the night, however, Elyazal said that the military was investigating an incident earlier this month where army vehicles were captured on tape driving into a crowd of mostly Coptic protesters demonstrating outside Egypt’s state television headquarters. Elyazal suggested that SCAF had obtained different footage from the "Maspero" incident, in which 27 people died, that will absolve the miltary by proving that a civilian “wearing a red shirt” commandeered an army vehicle.
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Members of the audience audibly sighed at several points throughout the debate - especially after former general Elzayal suggested that Egypt’s military is not “running the show” in the country.
“It’s a free country, they can do what they want,” responded Elzayal to the mild jeers.
The mostly English-speaking audience - not exactly a representative cross-section for Egypt’s 80 million residents - voted overwhelmingly in favor of the team challenging Egypt’s military rule. But by the end of the night, few people - either on stage or in the audience - seemed to have had a change of opinion.
Perhaps the interesting aspect of the debate was the fact that it almost did not happen. The venue reserved for the taping had to be changed at the last minute after Egypt’s transitional government revoked the show’s location permit, according to staff of The Doha Debates.
“Someone did not want this debate to take place,” Sebastian announced during the introduction to the show.
The Doha Debates from Cairo is scheduled to air on BBC on November 5.