'When the rallies happened in Tahrir Square, we would all receive a large bonus'
When tanks rolled on to the streets of Cairo on 28 January this year – marking the beginning of the end for Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship, which was faltering under the pressure of a huge nationwide uprising – the generals commanding them were feted by many protesters as revolutionary heroes.
Ten months on, those same protesters have risen up once again, bringing a familiar panoply of tear gas, barricades and mass occupations back to Egypt’s city centres. This time though, the target of demonstrators’ wrath is the generals themselves – particularly their organ of political control, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), and its leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, both of which stand accused of stifling the revolution, cracking down on dissent and doing everything they can to protect the entrenched power and privileges of the old regime.
Parliamentary elections, which begun in late November and will continue through to March, have helped quell the worst of the violence for now, and the army has promised that it will hand over to a democratic civilian government and return to its barracks by the end of June next year. But after so many broken promises, popular opinion remains uncertain, not least because the generals have announced plans to play an active role in the writing of a new constitution.
No matter what the political future has in store for Egypt, few believe that the armed forces – an institution perennially shrouded in secrecy, which is believed to control vast swathes of the economy and is sustained by a huge conscript labour system – will open itself up to democratic reform and public oversight. The military top brass and revolutionaries are locked in an ongoing propaganda battle over who has the right to direct the winds of post-Mubarak change; the former have the hugely influential state media complex at their disposal, while the latter have been periodically boosted by the defection of mid-level army officers who have turned their back on Tantawi and thrown in their lot with protesters in Tahrir Square.
But despite the crucial role played by the military in Egypt’s ongoing upheaval, little is ever heard from those at the heart of the armed forces: the ordinary, mid-ranking personnel whose loyalty to Scaf, or lack of it, could yet determine the outcome of the revolution. Apart from carefully-scripted press conferences given by senior generals, all officers and soldiers are forbidden from speaking to the media, making it hard to gauge the mood within the ranks.
Now though, one insider has penned a unique account of life within the Egyptian army for the Guardian. A reserve officer for several years, he was in active service throughout the anti-Mubarak uprising and worked right through this year’s unrest before completing his duty in late 2011. The officer’s name and identity has been concealed; the text below has been edited for clarity and to preserve the writer’s anonymity.
"Officer training was intense. Our days started at 5am, and conditions were terrible. It was an attempt to 'break us' and transform us from civilians to military men. The hours were filled with pointless assemblies and formations where we'd stand for hours in the sun, the recital of army songs, singing the national anthem daily and following orders from the sergeants and warrant officers who would treat us terribly. But even those who gave us lessons would complain about the army and tell us how surprised and shocked they were at how different it had been from their expectations, and how frustrated they were at being unable to leave.
Regulation food was awful and served most of the time with dirty plates and spoons; it was partly bad management but I also believe they arranged things like that deliberately as it was possible to buy your own food instead from the well-stocked cafeteria and this was a way for the army to make money.
Punishment for misdemeanours included being forced to stay at the training academy on your days off, being made to lie down with your hands behind your back and then crawl on the ground, and being told to stand under the sun for an hour in full uniform and equipment, or getting thrown into military jail. It was all designed to humiliate you, but often we preferred being sent to jail; it was better than the normal daily schedule because at least it meant we were out of the sun.
Sometimes we'd rebel until the prison was full, at which point they'd have to try and be nicer to us. At the beginning we weren't even allowed phones, but over time everyone found ways around the rules and we managed to get anything we wanted into the barracks: mobiles, laptops, beer, hashish, chess, cards and kettles.
The main challenge was staying sane and keeping your chin up, remembering that they were trying to crack your spirit. The senior officers are all still living in 1973 [the year of Egypt's last major military conflict, the Yom Kippur war with Israel] and spent all their time reminding us of the imminent threat posed by Israel and how the Israelis are scared of the huge numbers of educated young officers drafted annually into the Egyptian army. It was different in the old days; back then they had a cause to fight for – now it's all just bullshit and corruption, just another job for most of the personnel.
Most of the mid-ranking officers are completely uninterested in all the patriotic rhetoric. For them it's just stable employment with decent benefits; the majority are pretty naive and not very politically conscious, and the revolution took them by surprise. When 25 January [the outbreak of the revolution] began these officers were instinctively against the protests but once the regime began to crack they were appalled at the stories that emerged of corruption surrounding Mubarak and his cronies. Most became relatively pro-revolution but I think there was some bitterness over the fact that things had clearly been so rotten for so long and yet their generation had done so little about it. Now it was the younger kids who were forcing political change; the older guys felt confused and weren't sure what to believe.
After Mubarak fell and the rule of Scaf (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) began, the top brass moved quickly to secure the loyalty of all mid-level and junior officers. Whenever a big Friday street demonstration or rally in Tahrir Square took place we would all receive a bonus of between 250 and 500 Egyptian pounds (£26-52), whether or not we had anything to do with policing the protests.
It's ridiculous; at the height of the unrest reserve officer salaries doubled and everyone was getting huge bonuses all the time (an average of 2,400 pounds – £254 – for me in January and February). Most full-time officers didn't really care what was happening politically on the streets, they were just happy with the extra money. Occasionally though you'd hear guilty jokes about how we were the only people who were benefiting from the revolution and the Egyptian people had been screwed over.
It was clear that the army desperately wanted to avoid any form of protest in the country once Mubarak was gone. The aim was to win over more of the Islamist population who might have traditionally been more hostile to the armed forces, as well as scaring the shit out of anyone else who might be thinking of holding a demonstration. Each confrontation with protesters was a test to measure the reaction of the general public and see what level of brutality and violence they could get away with.
That was especially obvious during the Maspero events [a protest by Coptic Christians and their supporters on 9 October which was attacked by the armed forces, leaving 27 dead]. The media, army and interior ministry have always worked hand in hand for their personal goals, and in this instance they worked to escalate the fitna [an Arabic word denoting chaos and division] between Muslims and Christians, and there was a great deal of ignorance and confusion within the ranks. The Christian minority are seen by many – inside the army and outside – as less important, so they were an easy target. You have to bear in mind that for the most part, officers only watch mainstream Egyptian television and so they never see the YouTube videos showing the darker side of Scaf. They're in denial.
But as the months went on, despite this ignorance and the generous bonus system, dissent against [Egypt's commander-in-chief and current head of Scaf, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi has grown. Most of the mid-level officers now think of him as Mubarak's right-hand man, and they hate the fact that Scaf's violence has tarnished the army's image in the eyes of the public. Many still disapprove of the current protests because they feel it's not the right time, and also because they're resentful that others can go and demonstrate on the streets when they themselves do not have such freedom. But that attitude is beginning to change, especially as independent TV channels have been airing video clips of the recent violence and the brutality of the security forces is being openly discussed by people like [prominent media personalities] Yosri Fouda and Ibrahim Eissa. More and more mid-level officers are turning against Scaf, and against Tantawi."
-Published in The Guardian
-Cairo - December 2011