Does Egypt's Real Revolution Start Now?

A soldier tries to separate protesters from riot police in Tahrir Square.
A soldier tries to separate protesters from riot police in Tahrir Square. Khaled Desouki / AFP-Getty Images

Col. Eyad Emam was an exemplary Egyptian military officer. The 40-year-old father of three had served in air defense for most of his career. He was an instructor at the military institute and wrote two manuals used in military schools. In April of this year he was scheduled to travel to the United States for special training.

So his older brother, Ayman, was surprised when he got a phone call on April 15 from a number he didn’t recognize, and it turned out to be the colonel. Eyad said he was talking on a new mobile because he suspected that his old one was being tapped.

"What did you do wrong?" asked Ayman.

"Nothing," said the colonel.

"Is it related to the revolution?"

"Sort of, yes."

The following day, Eyad Emam was arrested while on duty, and the next time his brother saw him was weeks later in a military court. With Eyad were five of the 22 other commissioned officers who had been jailed with him. Some had been arrested protesting in Tahrir Square in a raid by security forces during the early hours of April 9. Others, like Emam, were seen as connected to the protesters in some way, including over Facebook. In court, the colonel tried to hide his handcuffs from his brother. He had lost weight, he was unshaven, and there were tears in his eyes. He didn’t really want to talk. "I am not a traitor," he said. "None of us is a traitor."

That conversation, part of a personal tragedy for the officer and his family, is also key to the national tragedy of Egypt right now. On the eve of parliamentary elections arranged by the military high command, the country has exploded. In massive, often violent protests, tens of thousands of civilians are challenging the generals’ idea of democracy—which holds that the military’s authority is unquestioned and its finances and inner workings are untouchable—as simply not good enough.

Out on the streets amid the tear gas, the truncheons, the Molotov cocktails, and the flying rocks, protesters have tried to restart the revolution they thought had been won nine months ago. Last week 42 people were killed in the riots, hundreds were injured, and tens of thousands once again marched into Tahrir Square as they did when they demanded, and got, the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak last February.

Now the crowds call for the removal of the octogenarian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the other top officers in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—Mubarak appointees who facilitated the president’s removal and who have ruled the country since. But the generals, apart from making some largely symbolic concessions, remained unmoved. "We will not relinquish power because a slogan-chanting crowd said so," Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Malla declared at a televised news conference last week.

Egypt’s allies have seemed reluctant to get involved in the standoff between the generals and civilians, although on Friday U.S. President Obama urged military rulers to transfer power to an elected government "as soon as possible." Such halfhearted statements have been commonplace from the U.S., which gives the Egyptian military about $1.3 billion a year—much of it used to buy expensive American hardware. For decades Washington has tended to look at the generals almost exclusively in terms of their willingness to keep the peace with Israel and, to some extent, to fight terrorism. A former member of the Mubarak government claims that, ironically, Tantawi "hates the United States, he hates Israel," but he likes the money.

Foreign officers who have worked with Tantawi often refer to him as "the CEO of Military Inc." He is not only the minister of defense, he is the minister of military production, a position that oversees factories making everything from tanks to pasta, building toll roads and resorts, using conscripts as labor, and raking in millions of dollars that are never accounted for in public. In a classified 2008 cable, the U.S. ambassador to Cairo at the time described Tantawi as "aging and change resistant," and noted his steadfast opposition to both economic and political reforms. After the high command ousted Mubarak, it turned with a vengeance on well-respected technocrats like Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali and Trade and Industry Minister Rachid Rachid, who had been fighting with Tantawi since 2004 in their efforts to liberalize the economy. Washington had thought of them as stars of reform and modernization. Yet at the present moment, the Americans still have to work with the field marshal, and Tantawi surely knows it.

Tantawi and the high command are obsessively sensitive about one question in particular during this time of massive social upheaval: the loyalty of the military’s 500,000 soldiers, including some 200,000 draftees. For years, the issue of dissent has been the unaskable question. There is a long record of rebellions in Egyptian military ranks—as far back as 1879, Gen. Ahmed Orabi led a revolt to try to wrest Egypt and Sudan from European control; 73 years later, nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser successfully over-threw the monarchy. More recently, a mid-lieutenant led the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and conscripts burned hotels near the pyramids in 1986.

Today the issue of disloyalty in the ranks is so sensitive that even people who have no close ties to the Army become visibly nervous if the subject comes up. "I warn you not to do this," a wealthy businessman told a reporter visiting his home for coffee last week, then asked him to leave. "Don’t write that you met me. You can have your espresso, and goodbye." Bloggers have been arrested and jailed in recent months precisely because they voiced questions about and criticism of the inner workings of the military.

The Egyptian military’s version of omertà makes the breaking point between top officers and subordinates extremely difficult to gauge. Police and hired thugs commanded by the Army have attacked protesters with unbridled ferocity. But if regular troops were ordered to fire on the crowds, it’s unclear if they would. A 23-year-old conscript hanging out in plainclothes with his buddies far from Tahrir one late night last week said Army brass wouldn’t even consider giving such an order. "The Army will never fight the protesters," he said. "They are our family and friends." He pointed to a friend of his who had been in the square protesting just hours earlier. "He’s been my friend ever since I was in my mother’s stomach." The same conscript was convinced that Egypt without the military in charge "will be a jungle."

Even though a poll taken in Egypt in October by the University of Maryland suggests a plurality of 43 percent thinks the military authorities are working to "slow or reverse the gains of the revolution," there’s still a huge residual respect for the institution. And despite the echoes of February, the political landscape is much more complex and treacherous than it was at the beginning of the year. Then all the anger was focused on one man, Mubarak. Now it is diffused across the political spectrum. Many Egyptians say they are sick of the chaos and economic stagnation these last ten months. And some recall that the military was able to intervene with popular support in February precisely because the showdown between the Tahrir crowds and Mubarak had reached a stalemate: he refused to go, but Tahrir did not have enough organization and leadership to replace him. The military filled the void—and to a large extent that leadership vortex among the revolutionaries still exists.

Last week at a meeting of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the group the Tahrir crowd pulled together after Mubarak fell in order to try to coordinate the movement, activists were scrambling to make sense of the fast-changing situation on the streets. "We need to have an exit strategy," said one activist. Then he paused. "What are we asking for?"

The high command, for its part, has worked hard to divide any potential opposition, trying to create what Prof. Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, calls "a new political order in which it may agree to neither rule nor govern, but in which it in turn is neither ruled nor governed." There’s widespread suspicion that the traditional leadership of the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is willing to cut deals with the high command to protect the generals’ prerogatives as long as the way is cleared for the Brotherhood to win elections. In any case, senior Brotherhood officials have not supported the protests.

After the riots last week, when the previous civilian government resigned, the Egyptian junta named a new prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, to form a new government. He had served Mubarak in the same position in the late 1990s, when he proved he knew how to avoid encroaching on the generals’ interests.

Ironically, because there is so much chaos and uncertainty, some protesters are once again putting their faith in the military—but not the generals. Mohamed Allam, 35, said he witnessed the crackdown on dissident officers in Tahrir on the night of April 8 and the morning of April 9. Dozens of officers had come in uniform and spoken to the crowd, he said. Then about 20 had decided to stay through the night. Allam remembers the "crazy, crazy, crazy" gunfire that started at 3:30 in the morning: mostly shots fired in the air as the security forces closed in and beat protesters with truncheons. They charged straight for the tents where the officers were staying, dragging them away.

Lawyers and family members offer a window onto those men later put on trial with Colonel Emam. Lt. Mohamed Wadei, for instance, is a 26-year-old officer trained in SEAL-type special operations. He has been in the military for nine years. His mother says he went to Tahrir on April 8 wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a SEAL logo. A bunch of his friends from the military academy were on a stage, and he jumped up and took the microphone, speaking about the martyrs of the revolution and how the people responsible hadn’t been brought to justice.

"He wanted to communicate to the revolutionaries in the square to tell them, don’t worry, things will change, the country will be democratic and free," says Wadei’s mother. "And he wanted to give them that message as a military person. He believed, like the other officers and most if not all of the people in the square, that the country is not yet fully free."


"The revolution," said Colonel Emam to his brother, "did not end." He seemed to think it had only just begun.


That night Wadei was taken at gunpoint from his mother’s home. "They dealt with him as a criminal," she said.

Lt. Col. Khaled Kholy, 37, traveled with United Nations missions to Sudan and Slovenia. He specialized in land surveying and taught at the military institute. He went to Tahrir on April 1, not April 8, but he was arrested more than two weeks later. According to his sister, he went out of a combination of "patriotism and curiosity. He wanted at least to be a part of the square and revolution."

The sentences handed down to the officers of Tahrir for sowing discord—fitna, in Arabic—ranged from one to three years. They are being treated delicately now, so as not to build even more resentment in the ranks. "These are my children more than your children," Ayman Emam remembers Tantawi telling the parents and siblings of some of them. "I don’t want any of my children to be harmed." And Col. Eyad Emam, at least, has been able to keep track of the new protests. He told Ayman that protesters had waved banners with the photos of the arrested officers. "The revolution," said Colonel Emam to his brother, "did not end." He seemed to think it had only just begun.