Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
A riot police officer gestures as protesters throw stones at him during clashes with protesters. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)
Once again, Egyptian protestors have taken to the streets to lash out against the disappointing political transition there. This latest turmoil, which began on the second anniversary of the January 25 uprising, is worse and has lasted longer than previous confrontations. Last week, the fighting was most intense in Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said, where police fired tear gas, birdshot, and live ammunition into the crowds, leaving over 60 Egyptians dead and another 1,000 injured. There is also a video circulating of police brutally beating a man, who had been stripped down to his underwear. But the state's continued use of force has done little to stop civil disobedience.
The government has blamed this latest uprising on foreign troublemakers and unruly youth militias, such as the newly established quasi-anarchist group the Black Bloc. On January 27, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi belatedly addressed the nation, urging calm while imposing a curfew, and declaring martial law in the cities along the canal. Morsi ended his speech with a threat: "If I see that the homeland and its children are in danger, I will be forced to do more." But further cracking down on citizens would not curb violence in Egypt. In fact, it would only reinforce protestors' claims that the state continues to repress citizens and that the transition has been a sham.
The Egyptian Ministry of Interior remains the country's most virulently detested institution. In 2009, it employed a total of 1.7 million people, including nearly 850,000 policemen and 400,000 officials in the dreaded State Security Investigations Service (SSI). Under the Mubarak regime, the police and the SSI were responsible for a copious amount of unwarranted domestic surveillance, corruption, torture, and police brutality. The regime also used the police and the SSI to steal elections, limit freedom of expression, and repress the opposition.
Today, little has changed. The SSI has simply been replaced by Egypt's Homeland Security agency, which is just as violent as its predecessor; it is the same organization with a new name. One domestic nongovernmental organization claims that, in Morsi's first 100 days, 88 people were tortured and 34 were extrajudicially murdered in police stations across the country, but not a single person connected to the new government's coercive apparatus has been found guilty of a crime. In fact, only two police officers have been sentenced in connection with any violence since the 2011 uprising. Shielded by Egypt's political elites, the Interior Ministry has made few personnel changes. To be sure, there have been some forced retirements, but most Mubarak-era officials and generals have been placed in other parts of the bureaucracy, where they enjoy high salaries and guarantees of immunity for their past crimes. The men who have taken over the vacant positions are old-regime deputies. Thus, the hierarchy, culture, and philosophy endure.
Reluctance to reform the Interior Ministry might have been expected from the military. But, given that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were the victims of the state's iron fist for so long, it is surprising that they are equally keen to keep the old system in place. Their desire to stay in power, it seems, has led them to lie with strange bedfellows. In addition, the transition from military to civilian rule was structured such that the winner of the presidential elections would be forced to compromise with the old regime. As a result, the president, together with the short-lived parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has ignored or blocked efforts by groups such as the National Initiative for Rebuilding the Police to professionalize and reform the security sector. And recent judicial rulings continue to place the police beyond the law, which encourages them to keep defending the regime, as opposed to serving the population.
The military, which oversaw the haphazard transition that lasted 17 months, also fills a tricky role, caught between the government and the growing number of unsatisfied citizens. When pressed for a reaction to the current tensions, the defense minister, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, issued a statement that appeared to simultaneously side with the government and the protesters. El-Sisi did not endorse Morsi's leadership, but he urged protestors to return home for the sake of the state. Because the military feigns objectivity, some, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, have suggested that the military should sponsor a national unity government. It is highly unlikely, however, that the military will intervene. Undoing the results of the most competitive election in Egypt's history, in which 52 percent of the population turned out, could spark widespread outrage. Similarly, the military is not strong enough to govern. It barely survived intact the first time it intervened in national politics. Furthermore, the military does not want to be in the spotlight. Generals are happy to privately wield power while Morsi takes the heat publically. Plus, the military is pleased with the new constitution's articles that expanded its influence.
And, although disruptive, the recent protests have not threatened to bring down Morsi's government. Egypt is not on the verge of collapse, nor is such an outcome likely even if violence persists. The number of demonstrators is high, but it is not the critical mass that gathered during the 18 days of mobilization that culminated in toppling Mubarak. Still, the government needs to make substantial changes to calm tensions.
The uprising that first started over two years ago has not yet reformed the state apparatus or its security forces. But it has undoubtedly changed the population. Egyptians will no longer tolerate old Mubarakist behavior and practices. Rarely does an opportunity to exact revenge on the police for their past and present transgressions pass unused. Demonstrations about unrelated issues quickly escalate into battles with the state. The police, for their part, are publicly frustrated that citizens no longer fear them. This causes officers to crack down on protestors more violently, which feeds into escalating cycles of violence.
The security services need to be dissolved and reconstituted with new personnel. There needs to be civilian leadership, as well as legal training about human rights and an outlawing of torture. As long as an unreformed police force is responsible for responding to protests, bloodshed will persist. Meanwhile, the lack of change and political progress makes revolutionaries feel that peaceful, democratic avenues of participation and reform are blocked. Elected state officials remain partisan and weak, the formal opposition remains fragmented, and the state apparatus continues to operate with an outdated mentality. And so Egyptians keep taking to the street.