CAIRO: A military general salutes the martyrs on Feb. 11. The same general wags a threatening finger at protesters in July in a scene that best describes the radical transformation in the discourse of the ruling military leaders throughout a pivotal year fraught with fatal tension between the people and the army.
The answer to the question on whether the change in hand gestures was spontaneous or part of a conniving plan, lies in a bundle of contradictory statements that have characterized the media appearances of the army generals ruling the country.
The pattern of discourse glorifying the revolution in a strictly abstract form, while vilifying all actions associated with it, was in stark contrast with the major shifts in transition roadmaps. Orwellian-style public brainwashing attempted to convince Egyptians that the army council’s decisions have been consistent all along.
Thrown in that mix were changes in tone that, according to Al-Jazeera journalist Nadia Aboul Magd, reflected a generational gap and demonstrated the difference between the civilian and military culture.
On the night of Feb. 11, when then vice president Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak has decided to hand over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Major General Mohsen El-Fangary gave the third statement of SCAF, their first after Mubarak’s removal. In it he gave the first official acknowledgment of the sacrifice of the martyrs with a military salute.
The scene brought already emotionally-charged Egyptians to tears.
With a single gesture, El-Fangary, who only a day earlier had read statement number 2 in which SCAF pledged to fulfill the promises Mubarak made after delegating powers to Suleiman, became the cherished face of the Armed Forces.
Televised and online statements followed, culminating in the first live TV interview with the generals on Feb. 22. El-Fangary was absent, but his popularity was growing. On Dream TV, with host Mona El-Shazli, three generals explained for over four hours the path they would follow to transition Egypt towards democracy.
It was historical. Previously, the mere mention of the military in the media was illegal. While the laws hadn’t changed, the military’s foray into politics rendered these rules irrelevant. The military and the people were getting to know each other and the set-up was perfect.
The generals were relaxed and sounded sincere. El-Shazli stressed that no preconditions were set for the live interview.
Major General Mohamed El-Assar pledged to leave power in six months after setting the transition strategy by changing the necessary articles in the constitution to facilitate fair elections. He specifically said parliamentary and presidential elections would be held in six months, that SCAF would cede power to allow for enough time to write the constitution.
Constitutions can’t be written in six months. It needs a year or a year and a half because there are a lot of issues to be discussed, he told viewers.
Today SCAF insists on staying in power until the constitution is written, saying it could be drafted in a couple of months, in the period between convening both houses of parliament and holding presidential elections in June 2012.
“The original transition plan (six months to elections as per the constitutional amendments) was made when the generals were still freaked out by the uprising and trying to figure out what to do about Mubarak and senior NDP figures who were arrested only in April,” Issandr El-Amrani, Cairo-based journalist and political analyst, explained.
SCAF, he added, had “adapted to the situation as it evolved, in good part in response to street protests that forced it to make concessions.”
“Adaptation” could help explain the contradictions that marred the road from February to November, when Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi made the announcement to hand over power by July 2012 under pressure from protesters.
“The reasons for contradictions are clear. The military council’s goal was ending the inheritance of power project [for Mubarak’s son Gamal to take power], not changing the corrupt regime,” said Ahmed Fouad, media coordinator of the National Front for Justice and Democracy.
He believes that SCAF pretended to be on the side of the revolution and tried to calm things down, until it secured enough public support to arrest the revolutionaries and suppress freedoms.
"The military council is against change, because simply it’ll be the first victim of change," he said.
Some changes in the army discourse were abrupt, made to win an argument here or there. Mamdouh Shahin, SCAF member and Tantawi’s legal advisor, for instance, would say that the 1971 constitution was void and in another occasion he would insist that it was still in place.
When it came to major shifts, the process was gradual. An army of ex-generals, now labeled and cited in media as strategic experts, usually help pave the road in an unofficial capacity.
Back in August, retired general Sameh Seif El-Yazal suggested in a radio show that the SCAF was reluctant to stay in power, but only to oversee the drafting of the constitution which would take a year, and then organize presidential elections. The new scenario deviated from pre-referendum discussions that aimed to choose between either drafting a constitution then holding parliamentary and presidential elections, or holding both elections first and then write the constitution.
What seemed to be a farfetched suggestion at first kept gaining momentum in the media, unchallenged, until the scenario of staggered parliamentary elections, drafting the constitution and then holding presidential elections became the de facto path.
The generals “became more confident after Ramadan, in part due to the failure of the July Tahrir sit-in and growing alienation of the revolutionaries from the street. By that time the security situation had stabilized, the army carried out a major stabilization operation in Sinai, and the army’s control was asserted. It grew over-confident,” El-Amrani, the author of the arabist.net blog, explained.
Vilifying the activists and the youth groups steering street action was also gradual, in a process that started with hailing the youth of the country.
The generals in February laughed with El-Shazli about how Mubarak’s media machine labeled the protesters as foreign agents. But what they ridiculed then, became another strategy that manifested itself in their statements, first through hints and then through direct accusations.
In July, Head of the Central District Major General Hassan El-Roweiny took the conspiracies to a new level. Calling numerous shows on the morning of July 23, when protesters had announced a march from Tahrir to the Ministry of Defense, the general directly accused activists of being foreign agents. Like SCAF’s Facebook statement number 69, he singled out the April 6 Youth Movement. The later fact that an official investigation had disproved the allegations and that no charges were pressed against the group never made it to the media.
One person died on that day as residents of Abbaseya and SCAF supporters attacked protesters there. It was the fatal appearance of what the military dubbed “honorable citizens,” but it wasn’t the first time the term was used.
In the February interview, General Mokhtar El-Molla described an attempt to attack an electricity power station that was foiled by “honorable citizens.”
He also used the Mubarak-era Islamist scarecrow, trying to dissuade activists from holding demonstrations that would be infiltrated. The Friday preceding the interview showed Islamist dominance.
Nine months later, the same general used the same scarecrow in a meeting with foreign journalists. Following Islamists’ sweeping victory in the first phase of parliamentary elections, he told reporters the parliament is not representative, arguing for a bigger role for the military in drafting the constitution. The statements were later refuted by Shahin who affirmed the military’s commitment to democracy.
In addition to the content, the generals’ tone also changed. El-Fangary wagged his finger warning the protesters in a July speech. The generals who were welcoming of questions in earlier press conferences gradually got angrier and less tolerant to the slightest attempt to challenge their version of the events, especially as the intensity of the violence by security against protesters increased, with three fatal crackdowns in October, November and December.
In December, following a deadly crackdown that left 19 dead, Major General Adel Emara, in full uniform and green beret as opposed to earlier less formal attire, was angered by a journalist who took out a newspaper to show him the image of a female protester stripped to her bra as soldiers continued to beat her, with one brutally stomping her bare chest.
That journalist was Al Jazeera’s Aboul Magd. She was one of few who managed to challenge the generals’ version of events on air. The stunt forced the general to admit the incident, saying it was being investigated.
Returning to the same studio that welcomed the generals in February, Major Generals Mahmoud Hegazy and El-Assar exhibited a different tone in October. The show seemed tenser and more restricted than its February counterpart. No activist was invited to the studio like last time.
The rhetoric of empowerment that was evident in February had disappeared in October, and the blame was placed squarely on the protesters.
According to Aboul Magd, the discourse doesn’t only reveal political interests. The old generals feel unappreciated and forced into confrontations with young activists. The patriarchal and parental tone evident in their speech betrays more than a generation gap. Used to giving orders, the generals were forced to negotiate and even make compromises with civilians, she explained.
The Mubarak trial for instance was a concession forced on the generals by street action in April and May.
“They only listen to themselves and those who tell them what they want to hear,” Aboul Magd said.
It wasn’t all contradictions though, from day one the generals vilified and challenged protesters. The first televised statements highlighted the importance of going back to work. Even the February interview saw the members demanding an end to labor strikes and demonstrations.
“The only thing that hasn’t changed in SCAF’s statements is its enmity to the revolution, and its attempts to destroy it and vilify the protesters. Aside from that, all their statements were changed and their promises not honored,” Fouad said.
Fouad is part of the 3askar Kazeboon (Military Liars) campaign which aims to poke holes in the generals’ statements. The participating activists assembled videos to prove that the generals were lying in their description of events and to show their contradictory media statements. The videos were posted online and activists across the country have been showing them in their neighborhoods, circumventing restrictions on, if not complicity by, mainstream media.
The contradictions in SCAF’s media discourse reflected a myriad of equally conflicting conclusions, that reflect an incompetence vs. malice polemic.
“The key to understanding their actions is not to view them as rooted in incompetence. There is an underlying strategic but purposeful drive to maximize their power and to shape a system that they can control,” Joshua Stacher wrote in Foreign Policy in October.
“The outcome does not always work according to plan. But the generals have used every opportunity to maximize their legal authority in ways that do not lead to the construction of a more inclusive political arena,” he added.
The extension of the transitional period had definitely played in the generals’ favor. It provided them with a public more tolerant of contradictions.
The generals believe people have a short memory, Aboul Magd explained, and they depend on that. They think they can outdo the persistence of street action.
Propping the army as the protectors of the revolution, Tantawi told police academy graduates in May that the decision not to fire at protesters in January was a collective one. As a witness in Mubarak’s trial, he reportedly told the court in September the ousted president never gave the order to shoot. He reiterated the same stance later in a TV appearance.
Using the Mubarak playbook, they also exploited Egyptians’ inherent need for stability, Aboul Magd said.
Fouad believes that street pressure is what forced SCAF to keep changing its tone.
Tantawi’s speech in November offered concessions to protesters facing a deadly crackdown, but in essence he was addressing viewers at home, agitating them against the protesters demanding an end to military rule. Instead of admitting government failure in economic policies, he continued the rhetoric of blaming protests.
“The November clashes and the elections created a new dynamic reality: Tantawi accepted a June deadline for the presidential elections, and it became clear the [Muslim Brotherhood] would control parliament,” El-Amrani said.
With calls for protest marches on the anniversary reaching a fever pitch, the generals readjusted their tone. In a speech on the eve of Jan. 25, Tantawi canceled the state of emergency. Despite leaving a vague exception — only when confronting thuggery — Tantawi addressed the Egyptian people as a whole. The speech was concise and lacked the warning tone.
The newly elected parliament is also offering a challenge to military culture. In addition to older members demanding retribution and calling the SCAF out on its false promises, younger members, backed by elections legitimacy, are directly demanding SCAF be held responsible for its actions.
The generals “now have an interlocutor in the MB and parliament more generally, and the question of their interests and their immunity from prosecution may very well be up for negotiation in the months ahead. And even beyond that, they are likely to retain the power to intervene on policy issues for some time to come,” El-Amrani said.
Away from negotiations with political powers, protests marking Jan. 25 and subsequent street action could force further change of plans on the generals, probably providing more material for the Kazeboon activists.
General Adel Emara addresses journalists in a press conference in December following a deadly crackdown on protesters.