Update: In keeping with late January’s playbook, Mobinil is sending dozens of protest-related sms’s, and rumors abound re mobile blackouts and the ATMs not being filled with cash for tomorrow. Those arrested for poster hanging are released, while April 6th activists are rumored to be in much worse straights.
It has been clear for months now that the army and the people are not “of one hand”, and that despite the occasional diplomatic need for a blind eye, there is no reason to doubt that the Egyptian army is a counter-revolutionary institution at its core. And there is every reason to worry about what this means for tomorrow’s demonstrations.
The army’s antagonism towards the revolution has been well documented, from the first violence against peaceful protesters on Feb 25th, to the razing of Tahir encampments on April 12, to the arrest of critical bloggers and legal reformers, to an alleged 7,000 civilians placed before military tribunals, to torture in museums and embassies, drafting a law that criminalized protests, to threatening print media not to publish unapproved references to the military.
The list is too dismaying to continue, and the playbook is harrowingly familiar. Together this suggests that while the actor identities and constellations of power may have changed in Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, the substructures of political economy have not. The red lines of censorship and violence have shifted terrain, but they are just as punitive as they were under the former Pharoah.
This does not, however, appear to be motivated by a wish to retain power, or even a conscious interest in maintaining specific power structures (though the economic interests and privileges of the military are certainly an important factor in any analysis of the transition). It is perhaps more productive to consider the SCAF as lumbering infant that doesn’t quite know what it wants or what it is doing, but knows when things annoy it or when it wants something, and happens to be 60 meters tall and still learning fine motor skills.
Better yet, let’s think of the SCAF as a dinosaur, a creature whose skills are well honed to a very specific environment–one that we can hope will not long be amenable. The military has consistently lashed out against protesters and critics in a blunt and reactionary fashion, (displaying little foresight or consideration, even for its own interests) and does not seem to be fully aware of the consequences of these actions. Torture of protesters was never likely to deter protests after February 11. It doesn’t take a political scientist to see that. But the SCAF seems constrained by path dependency of fantastic proportions, such that one wonders if it is capable of responding to civil resistance in any other way.
With a brain the size of an acorn and teeth the size of oak trees, it is hard to imagine how else a dinosaur would respond when you try to explain processes of constitutional reform and legal empowerment. It will step on you.
And so, as criticism of the military has become more and more prominent, as #noSCAF is trending among a population demonstrably unable to submit quietlly to martial revolution, it is perhaps not surprising that the military is preparing for tomorrow’s demonstrations by arresting activists. But it is very troubling.
Tomorrow’s protests may be quite large. Originally billed as rebooting the revolution, and later as a million man march against corruption, it is the first protest since January to have its own hashtag widely used in preparation. It is also comes at the head of widespread frustration over military performance, and the first wave of popular and open military criticism (post on novel manifestations of this forthcoming). In this context, it is a bad sign that the military is today arresting activists and citizens hanging up posters for tomorrow’s protest. It is also a bad sign that there is no press on it yet. Given its history of violence and the what seems to be a high level of general exasperation with protests, I worry that the dinosaur might lash out against the public in a way we haven’t worried about since February.
If there is a reason not to be scared, it is in the military’s apparent ability to really tune into popular opinion. If there is one area in which the SCAF has distinguished itself from the former regime, it is this: a heightened sense of smell for popular sentiment. This perception has been mobilized for counter-revolution (throwing parties in Tahrir for “the end of the revolution”, making all announcements first on facebook, heralding #noSCAF as a free speech evidence of successful revolution, while simultaneously censoring and torturing). But it may also be behind the fact that Hosni was actually charged criminally for protester deaths. There is reason to believe that SCAF understands and is interested–at some primitive, acorn-brain level–in what Egyptian people want. And the Egyptian people do not want mass violence against protesters, despite widespread exasperation among citizens and capitalists.
That said, you never know with dinosaurs or giant, cranky infants. The world would do well to keep an eye on Tahrir tomorrow.