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Many Egyptians Fear Military Is Becoming New Face of Old Regime

January 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn next to the continuing upheaval in Egypt, beginning with a look at the role of the army, a key player in modern Egyptian history and particularly in recent months.

Our report comes from Charles Sennott, editor of the international news website, GlobalPost.

CHARLES SENNOTT: One year ago, one young man took center stage in Tahrir Square. He told the crowd of hundreds of thousands, “The army has to choose between the regime and the Egyptian people.”

It was a strategy expressed in a simple chant: “The army, the people hand in hand.” It proved to be a tipping point. President Hosni Mubarak was toppled the next day.

And on the first day of a new Egypt, military soldiers were greeted as heroes. Soon, this trusted military was handed executive power in the transition until elections could be held.

Now, nearly a year later, as the elections for a new parliament are well underway, the military is standing by to protect the polls. But returning to Cairo to cover this continuing revolution, we found that the military is no longer seen as upholding the hope of the protest movement. Many fear it is a new face of the old regime.

Mohammed Abbas was a Muslim Brotherhood youth leader then and part of the Revolutionary Youth Council. He now feels the military betrayed the revolution.

MOHAMMED ABBAS, Egypt: They want the old system and the old regime stays with another basis. They want to be other hand full, not one hand, other hand.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Abbas is not just a revolutionary, but has become a candidate for parliament. At this vote-counting center in Giza near the Pyramids, he is anxiously waiting to see how his party fared in the mid-December round of voting.

MOHAMMED ABBAS (through translator): I stopped using the slogan “the army, the people” on April 8 when I saw the army shooting and killing their own sons and daughters.

CHARLES SENNOTT: On this street, there’s been a turning point in Egypt’s continuing revolution. The military, which was seen as heroic in the first phase of this revolution, is now taking part in a brutal and deadly crackdown on protesters. To critics, it’s a sign that the military will not give up power easily.

In April, the military began mass arrests of protesters, and has put some 13,000 civilians before military tribunals, often on trumped-up charges with swift judgment and long sentences. Women protesters were detained and administered so-called virginity tests by soldiers.

And at least one woman has filed and recently won a court case to stop the practice, which she called rape. In October, 25 Christian protesters were killed for demonstrating at Maspero, the national television building, for what they perceived as government indifference to attacks on Christians and the burning of a church.

The 350,000-strong military has a great deal at stake in a new Egypt. It is a vast enterprise backed by $1.3 billion in annual assistance from the United States. The military owns vast tracts of land, where opulent residential developments are built and officers are often given housing.

There is a new air force sports stadium, a national chain of gas stations, hotels in downtown Cairo, supermarkets, farmland, factories, hospitals, and the toll roads to the highly profitable Port of Suez. The Egyptian media reported that the government had to go to the military for $1.3 billion in loans to keep it afloat.

Some U.S. and Egyptian economists project that the military controls as much as 30 percent of Egypt’s overall economy. But no one knows for sure. That’s because, for more than a half-century, the military under Sadat and Mubarak was permitted to keep its accounting top secret.

Mohammed Okasha is a retired general who lived Egypt’s modern military history. He led raids in the 1967 war and again in 1973, which in Egypt is commemorated as the Oct. 6 victory. The retired general was proud of the military supporting the youth in Tahrir Square. And despite his frail health, he joined the protests.

MOHAMMED OKASHA, retired Egyptian Air Force general (through translator): One day, I go down to Tahrir and I took a banner with me that said the fighters of Oct. 6 are right with you, the fighters of Jan. 25. And I walked around the square for a whole hour with it. I don’t know how I managed to, a whole hour in Tahrir, because, health-wise, I can’t do that.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Okasha said he was always proud of his military background, even if he was not so proud of fellow officers enriching themselves through the culture of perks which he says eventually became outright greed and corruption.

MOHAMMED OKASHA (through translator): They have the power from their weapons. This is number one. Of course, power, authority and good cash flow, of course I will hold on to these benefits.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Now General Okasha says he is increasingly ashamed of the military. He watched in disbelief in recent months as the army descended into violence and brutality and showed the true face, as he puts it, of the old regime. It’s time, he says, for the military to turn over control of the country to the youth, who have the greatest stake in its future.

MOHAMMED OKASHA (through translator): I think that this revolution in this country will not succeed without those youth taking control of everything. We have to walk away. We have to turn away from the older people, including myself, and give those youth a chance to take the leadership positions.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy, believes the military will ultimately do just that and live up to its promise to relinquish power in six months, when a new president takes office.

But he concedes that this transfer of authority will mean many challenges for the military to live up to a new culture of transparency and accountability.

NABIL FAHMY, former Egyptian ambassador to the United States: I think the people actually want to believe in the military. If we find a way to end the violence quickly and are able to move the process first politically, they may be able to get over this very difficult week.

But that requires moving towards civilian rule relatively quickly. And it requires putting together a political system which is based on four basic principles: transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and finally competitiveness.

CHARLES SENNOTT: These principles will be a direct challenge to the military’s vast economic reach. But undoing the military’s hold on so much economic power may ultimately be needed to modernize Egypt’s struggling economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last week, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of foreign democracy and human rights organizations, including several backed by the U.S. government, further straining relations between the two countries.