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Egypt’s Military Does No Wrong in Eyes of Weary Citizens

Egypt’s Military Does No Wrong in Eyes of Turmoil-Weary Citizens
Egyptian army and security officers surround coffins covered with Egyptian national flags at Almaza Airbase in Cairo during a funeral for 25 policemen who were killed near the border town of Rafah, North Sinai, August 19, 2013. Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

In the last two weeks, Egypt’s military-backed government has killed almost a thousand Egyptians, placed Cairo under curfew, and lined roads with soldiers, bridges with tanks, and some roofs with snipers.

If all that bothered anybody in this crisis-weary city, they made little fuss about it.

“The Egyptian army works for the interest of the nation,” said Amany Hassan, a 45-year-old government employee whose father was in the military. “They got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptians love anyone who protects them.”

Two years ago, Egyptians were clamoring for democracy. Today, the city’s embrace of the armed forces appears boundless, secured by assurances of a rapid transition back to democracy. Streets are lined with posters of Abdelfatah al-Seesi, 58, the general who leads the current government. Television news anchors have not just applauded the military’s heavy hand; last Monday one broke out into song to praise the soldiers.

On the streets of Cairo, dozens of interviews showed, faith in the military stems from a desire for stability after months of street protests and the army’s deep presence in civilian life -- from building roads and bridges to running social clubs and hospitals and providing an income to a significant portion of the population.

“The military has considerable prestige and is widely seen as a pillar of independence and pride,” said Benjamin Geer, a sociologist and research fellow with the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Mechanic’s Workshop

For decades, the armed forces have used school books, movies and songs to hammer in a sense that it is the nation’s guardian, he said.

“People who criticize the military now seem very marginalized, and there’s probably a lot of self-censorship,” Geer said. “This wouldn’t be possible if the military hadn’t managed to give itself a starring role in notions of Egyptian nationalism.”

In Cairo, where the military’s presence is the strongest, and where the majority of the deaths have taken place, roadside stalls are festooned with posters of al-Seesi. On the Corniche, the wide thoroughfare that runs along the Nile, a giant photo of al-Seesi hangs outside a mechanic’s workshop.

“Al-Seesi is the lion of Egypt, the protector against groups of blood, terrorism and ignorance,” the poster reads. “He’s the one we trust.”

Traffic Light

On El Merghany street, near the presidential palace and the site of major protests against ousted President Mohamed Mursi, a street vendor runs between cars waiting at a traffic signal, selling photos of Al-Seesi. He found two willing buyers during one red light.

“There is a love for the military that I didn’t see coming,” said Amro Ali, an Egypt-born Middle-East analyst at the University of Sydney. “A lot of liberals have backed the military and whitewashed the deaths of the opposition. There is a national hysteria ripping through Egypt.”

Al-Seesi’s star has risen as that of the Muslim Brotherhood has fallen. The Brotherhood, an 85-year-old group that backed Mursi in the first democratic elections in Egypt, has seen its leadership culled in the last few weeks, either from arrests or killing, and faced mass rejection by Egyptians. That was aided by a media campaign waged both by state-run television channels and independent media dismayed by the violence caused by a few Brotherhood members.

Brotherhood Arrests

On Monday morning, state-run Middle East News Agency reported the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood member Osama Yaseen, the former youth minister, and the secretary to the Brotherhood’s deputy head, Khairat el-Shater.

Prosecutors will go to the prison where Yaseen is being held to question him about allegations of inciting and participating in the killing of protesters by a main Cairo presidential palace and the Republican Guard compound, the state-run Ahram Gate website reported, citing Mustafa Khater with the prosecutor’s office in the Cairo district of Heliopolis.

He will also be questioned about the alleged the torture and killing of four people near the sit-in site where Brotherhood protesters had held a weeks-long protest before being forcibly dispersed by security forces.

Riyadh Attaché

Al-Seesi was placed in charge of the ministry of defense and military production in August, 2012, by Mursi himself. Less than a year later, he was the man who deposed him. More than 90 percent of people said they had confidence in the army, more than any other institution, in a poll by Zogby Research Services released in June. No more recent polling is available.

The general’s promotion came after a storied career that included prestigious overseas assignments such as military attaché in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which now backs his government with billions of dollars in aid, and a stint at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 2006 as part of an exchange program, according to his online biography.

“He’s no fool. This is someone who is extremely clever at hiding his ambition,” said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who travels regularly to Egypt. “He’s got the military under control, he’s got the street behind him, he’s got the Brothers on the run, he’s got the Saudis writing the checks.”

Al-Seesi has said he was forced to overthrow Mursi to end polarization that had intensified during the Islamist’s year in office and led to mass protests demanding he step down. The army says it has no intention of running the country and has announced a “road map” that includes parliamentary and presidential elections early next year.

Fragile Allegiances

“I have all the respect for al-Seesi, because he supported the people against Mursi, and he promised he won’t govern,” said Nesma Mohammed, a veiled 18-year-old.

In “A Man of Destiny,” a video that airs several times daily on state-run Nile TV, images of the protests that led to the military’s warning to Mursi to give up power are looped against an orchestral score. It ends with a speech from al-Seesi.

“The honor of protecting the will of the people is more valuable to us, and to me personally, than the honor of ruling Egypt,” al-Seesi tells an applauding audience in the film.

That doesn’t mean the reputation of the armed forces can’t be tarnished. Egyptians have gone through five different leaders since protests in Tahrir Square displaced Mubarak, and allegiances have proven fragile.

Building Bridges

And voices outside the country have been quick to warn of the government’s anti-democratic ways. Human Rights Watch said Aug. 19 that security forces used excessive lethal force, under-reported the number of people killed, and used snipers to shoot anti-government protesters.

“If the last three years have illustrated anything, it is that Egyptians’ emotional connection to leaders and politicians is fleeting,” said Hani Sabra, a director at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “Right now, al-Seesi is very popular, he can do what he wants, but six months, a year from now, it is a risk.”

For a few outspoken Egyptians, love for the military is tempered with nagging doubts about its growing power. Ahmed Salama, a 34-year-old member of a group that called for the 2011 uprising against ex-President Hosni Mubarak, said he respects the army because “it’s the only institution in the country that is disciplined and that is capable of achievements” such as building bridges and roads.

Emotional Connection

As a child, he says he was fascinated by movies about the army’s victories, and several of his family members are associated with the military. Nonetheless, he says he’s uncomfortable with the fact that the armed forces today have carte-blanche.

“Politics is all about opinions, and when one of the parties involved in politics has arms, like the army, that’s a problem,” he said.

For now, though, al-Seesi’s standing in Egypt shows few signs of slipping. Growing pressure from outside has largely strengthened him at home, and the government has been careful to tailor its image as the protector of the country’s sovereignty despite the bloodshed.

“The way things were presented here after Mursi was ousted, it wasn’t military versus democracy, but military on behalf of democracy,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “Whether or not that’s accurate, that is how the events were understood by the non-Islamist majority in Egypt.”

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