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Standing By

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Last Saturday in Cairo, Coptic Christians protesting the latest in a series of church burnings were attacked. According to reports, a mob of thugs swarmed the downtown protest area, lobbing gasoline bombs and rushing the demonstrators. Riot police stood by, then left to call the military. An hour later, when soldiers finally arrived, over 80 people had already been injured. The episode, just one among many in a disturbing upsurge in sectarian violence and crime in the country, has led more than a few Egyptians to ask: Where is the military?

When Egypt’s military assumed control of Cairo’s streets on the evening of January 28, the cry of “al-shaab wa’al gays eed wahdah”“the people and the army are one hand!”became a common chant of the popular revolt. The Tahrir faithful credited the army with rescuing them from the notoriously abusive police forces, and the slogan gained new significance when the military reportedly refused the regime’s orders to fire on the protesters and forced Hosni Mubarak to resign two weeks later. 

But on closer inspection, it appears as if the military wasn’t so much on the side of the democracy protesters as it was simply making a studied effort to remain out of the spotlight. Indeed, even during the earliest days of the revolt, when tanks rolled into Tahrir Square following the January 28 “Friday of Rage” protests, the military stood down when pro-Mubarak thugs stormed the area and confronted protesters with rocks, horses, and camels; it was apparently willing to tolerate the regime’s violent attempt to quell the revolt so long as the assailants weren’t soldiers. Likewise, nearly a month after Mubarak’s resignation, on March 9, the military reportedly stood aside once again as thugs attacked protesters who were still camping out in Tahrir Square, and then used the attacks as a pretext to arrest the protesters and cleanse the Square completely.

In the past few weeks, meanwhile, the wave of crime and violence has intensified, regularly featuring jailbreaks, mob attacks, and soccer riotsViolence against Copts has skyrocketed, including arson against churches throughout the country and armed attacks on Coptic protesters demonstrating for greater protections. In most instances, the policewho have yet to regain public confidencehave abandoned the scene, while soldiers have either kept away or made arrests well after the worst of the violence was over. The military even declined to intervene when protesters prevented a Coptic governor from assuming office in the governorate of Qena, effectively shutting down the local administration; the standoff finally ended when Egypt’s interim government surrendered to the mobs and suspended the governor.

While it’s not entirely clear why the military is adopting a hands-off approach in the face of such unrest, the most likely theory is that by avoiding interference in domestic turmoil, it hopes to escape from its current responsibility for day-to-day governance without arousing the ire of groups that might challenge it. Direct intervention against the citizenry, the army reasons, has the potential to jeopardize its ultimate goal: keeping its popularity intact and its monopoly over many Egyptian industries secure. “The army doesn’t want to clash with the people,” says Hala Mustafa, editor of al-Dimuqratiya journal. “They want to keep their positive image.” If it becomes a target of public outrage, the military fears that its officers could lose many of the privileges that they have long enjoyed, including membership in exclusive clubs, control of a vast array of businesses, and favorable rates for buying public landsall without any public or parliamentary oversight.

The idea that the military is simply looking out for its material interests is further supported by the fact that the only occasion in which it has reliably intervened has been when radical protesters have attempted to direct their acts of defiance against Israel. Just last week, for instance, the Supreme Military Council prevented a convoy of Gaza-bound buses from leaving Tahrir Square, and it used teargas and rubber bullets to disperse a massive “Nakba day” demonstration that was held outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, during which over 150 activists were arrested and 350 were injured. These rare, aggressive interventions make sense when one considers that the military’s wealth and privileges are tied, in part, to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Beyond reducing the likelihood of fighting another destructive war, the signing of the Camp David Accords catalyzed an influx of United States foreign aid, most of which goes to the military. And if the peace treaty is jeopardized, so too will the military aid likely vanish. “I think this is perhaps a red line for the military,” says Cairo University political scientist Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid. “The peace treaty with Israel provides for the exchange of diplomatic missions. Attacking the Israeli embassy would make it hard for Israel to maintain a diplomatic mission, and it would [therefore] violate the treaty.”

To be sure, part of the reason for the military’s disappearing act when it comes to keeping the peace likely lies in the fact that Egyptian soldiers have no experience controlling local populations. “The military, I think, is not prepared to deal with civil strife,” says Al-Sayyid. “They are trained to fight regular armies, not to impose discipline on rising masses.” Whatever the cause, however, the military’s strategy of selective order-keeping may be catching up with it. As Egypt’s domestic security outlook has deteriorated in recent weeks, a new, less digestible slogan is circulating on Twitter: “The relationship between the army and the people is like a marriage where the woman knows that her husband is cheating but doesn’t say anything so that the house doesn’t collapse.”

Indeed, in recent days, unhappy activists have begun calling for a “Second Egyptian Anger Revolution,” which would demand the end of military rule and the establishment of a civilian-led presidential council. For the moment, this revolution redux seems to have little chance of success. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has benefited tremendously under Supreme Military Council and expects major gains in the September parliamentary elections, has announced that it will not participate. “Some not well known people are raising the call for this million [man march], but it is not supported by any force,” Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian told me. Yet a Brotherhood group in Alexandria recently endorsed the new round of demonstrations, and the activists leading the call remain hopeful. “Very few people believe that anything can happen on May 27, but I believe that it will gain momentum very soon,” says activist Sarah Abdelrahman. “This Friday is the ‘Friday of Politeness’ but, if nothing happens, [next Friday] will be the ‘Friday of Anger.’”

The mere prospect of mass demonstrations against the militarytraditionally Egypt’s most vaunted and powerful institutionillustrates that the situation in Egypt is very much in flux. And while the politicization of public order might be enabling the military to protect its material interests in the short-run, the instability and popular outrage that it is fomenting is doing long-term damage to the reeling country.

Eric Trager is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Follow @tnr on Twitter

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