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REPLAY: Gilbert Achcar: Ordinary soldiers may be with the democratic movement, but high command is at the core of the regime

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. This is the beginning of a Real News seven-part series on the current situation and the history of the rise of the military dictatorship in Egypt. The attitude towards the military is a central question facing the democratic movement in Egypt. And now joining us to begin our series on the history of modern Egypt is Gilbert Achcar. He’s in London, where he teaches development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies. And he’s the author of the book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks very much for joining us, Gilbert.


JAY: So one of the things that struck me, Gilbert, when I watch these events on television is the interviews with kids, young people in the [Tahrir] Square about the military. This is a military dictatorship at the core of this government. It’s essentially a client military, a client state of the United States. It’s certainly, at the senior levels of the army, a part of Egyptian crony capitalism, where the top leadership of the army are enriching themselves alongside allies, I guess, Egyptian millionaires and billionaires. Yet when you ask kids in the square what they think of the military, nobody wants to say a critical word. It’s they’re on our side, they’re neutral, they’re independent, they want to–they’re going to protect us. But we know Mubarak is still the commander-in-chief, so one would think if the military is taking that position, it’s because Mubarak has decided it’s is in his interest for them to do. Help us understand how Egyptians view the military.

ACHCAR: Yeah. Well, I would say there’s one dimension of wishful thinking in the movement that by saying, by making such statements they would defuse any animosity of the army towards them and that would contribute to the army actually even shifting over to the side of the demonstrators. There were some hopes that something like that might happen. And, well, as a matter of fact, if we are speaking of the soldiers, of the rank-and-file of the Egyptian army, I mean, of course they are part of the toiling masses of the country [inaudible] of the poor people. One very likely reason why the army has not been used by the regime to quell the uprising, at least until now, was–is the fear that the soldiers might be very reluctant to carry out such orders and even this might have led to some forms of mutiny. So the regime was cautious not to use the troops in a direct confrontation with the people. So in that sense, speaking of the army, addressing the troops makes sense. But where it gets into something rather dangerous politically is when it turns into sowing illusions about the military as an institution, about the army as an institution. The army as an institution is definitely not on the side of the people and definitely not neutral. It is completely on the side of Mubarak. And Mubarak actually, and the army general staff, were keen on emphasizing this by showing, you know, on the television, on Egyptian television, Mubarak meeting with the general staff and all that. So the army’s behind him. The key people that he put, you know, in at the head of the government that he formed after he dismissed the previous one, or the man he named his vice president, are all people from the army. So it’s more than ever, if you want, a military–I mean, a rule by the army of the army men, of the military.

JAY: I think it’s also a very important point that when the thugs came into the square a few days ago and the soldiers were told to back off and let them in, on the whole they did. The soldiers followed their orders and they did back off, and if I understand it correctly, the thugs came in. And even–there’s no–yet any indication for sure that if the soldiers were ordered to shoot that they wouldn’t. It’s still an open question, I guess.

ACHCAR: Yes. But, I mean, very clearly the regime didn’t want to take that risk, because that would have been–I mean, had this failed, the regime was, you know, completely threatened in its essential structure. So they wouldn’t take that risk. That’s why they preferred, you know, to [inaudible] they are trying–they are betting on the exhaustion of the movement. That’s exactly what they are doing, betting on the exhaustion of the movement. When the new prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, himself a former head of the aviation–I mean, the military air force, when he says, well, we’ll turn Tahrir Square into–or we consider it as some kind of Hyde Park, and let–so let these people go on making speeches there, gathering there as long as they want; if they want to, we can even supply them with food and water–that’s what he said. I mean, he’s just turning almost ironical about that. So they are betting on the exhaustion of the movement, because they prefer, you know, to let it lose its steam, let out all this frustration, and then gradually take control of the situation. That’s the [inaudible]

JAY: I was saying at the beginning of this, it’s a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick, where you lean back into the ropes and let your opponent punch you in the stomach until he gets tired, because as long as the protesters weren’t really focused on the military as the opposition, then you can keep throwing some politicians down, you know, under the buses, they say, and give the movement a feeling like they keep winning something. But in the end it looks like Mubarak will be there till September, and one way or the other the military isn’t–leadership’s not going anywhere.

ACHCAR: This is a general lesson of every kind of successful revolution. For revolutions to be successful they–when they are trying to break a regime, they have to break the backbone of the regime, and the backbone of states, of regimes is usually the repressive forces and–well, in some cases could be the civilian security forces, and others, and many others, it’s the army. And in Egypt it’s the army. Now, a revolutionary movement with, let’s say, some kind of revolutionary-minded leadership would focus on winning over the soldiers and winning over the soldiers, splitting them away from their leaders, that is, winning over the soldiers as allies of the revolution, as allies of the uprising against the general staff, against the high-ranking officers, against the elite. This kind of equivalent of the crony capitalism that you have in the private economy, the equivalent is the high-ranking general staff in the army. So if you had a revolutionary movement, that would have been the strategy, would have been this, this one precisely, and maybe, you know, have talks with the lower-rank officers and all that, trying to win over those segments of the army who might really feel solidarity with the uprising. But the fact is that the dominant political forces in the movement–I’m not speaking of some of the radical forces that exist but which are rather–relatively marginal, but the big, well, liberal parties, liberal forces, or liberal figures, or the Muslim Brotherhood, all of them having [inaudible] this kind of, you know, discourse about how glorious and good is the army. And the Muslim Brotherhood, I should say, in particular are very keen on not antagonizing the army. They are not a party with any program of breaking–they want to–I mean, ultimately they dream of seizing power by conquering positions within the state as it is, not breaking the state. And their kind of best scenario would be a Turkish kind of scenario, whereby the army would let real elections be organized in the country, political elections, keep firmly in control of power, but let some legislative form of power be there, which would be obliged to negotiate every [inaudible]step with the army.

JAY: Now, given there isn’t that kind of revolutionary leadership that you’re talking about, what do you consider the achievements of this movement so far?

ACHCAR: Well, the movement already achieved, I mean, a lot. It changed completely the atmosphere in Egypt. Now, there is a threat that if the regime succeeds in this strategy of exhaustion, of attrition (one could say this is a kind of war of attrition) of the movement, if that succeeds, you can have a backlash. And already we know that the military security and all that have started in the last couple of days a lot of repressive gestures against foreigners, against Egyptian activists.

JAY: Yeah, a lot of people have been arrested in the last few days, which is a story that’s not getting that much out in the international media. There’s a lot of attention on foreign journalists, but a lot of Egyptian activists are now being picked up.

ACHCAR: Yes, and a lot of harassment and threats, all kind of threats, and people are feeling the threat. So the regime is getting more and more threatening. It’s using the security, military security, which actually were headed by Omar Suleiman. So the present figurehead of the regime after Mubarak just went on the backstage for–at least for a while. And that’s the situation in which we are. This is in a sense a dangerous moment. But until now, the movement had–was on the rise in its mass dimension, in its popular dimension. We have seen absolutely gigantic mobilizations all over Egypt. This is completely unprecedented. So this has created something which I think is–will be very, very hard to reverse. So in that sense the balance of forces between the mass movement and the regime is very much altered. But what will be the final outcome of all that it’s still early to say. But what is clear is what the army wants to do, that is, this attrition, this exhaustion of the movement–as they say also in Washington, actually, an “orderly transition”. An “orderly transition” means a transition with the army firmly in control of the situation and letting political steam out, letting some degree, you know, of political reforms and all that, which have already been promised by Mubarak, but all that with the army in control. And of course this is a far cry from what the most radical sections of the movement are demanding, and which includes the dissolution of all the key institutions of–I mean, the political institutions of the regime (they haven’t said anything about the army in that regard) and the election of a constituent assembly. Well, that’s a very radical democratic demand, but, I mean, this would take–in order to implement such a demand, you would need a movement on the offensive, not only a movement in Tahrir Square, but a movement able–but with a leadership which is absent for the time being–able really to lead into an incursion in the realm of the real power in the country, and as I said, to be able to break the control of the general staff over the soldiers, over the army. This is the–I mean, one of the key conditions for revolution. In Tunisia, if they were able to get rid of the president, it’s–well, one of the key reasons, one of the key factors behind that was that the army abandoned him, the Tunisian army abandoned him. So you had a kind of split between the security forces, the civilian security forces, and the–I mean, not the military, and the military. And this situation became too dangerous for Ben Ali. He had to flee to the Saudi kingdom, as you know.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the current leadership, [Mohamed] ElBaradei, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and just what kind of leadership is there and might be emerging. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gilbert Achcar on The Real News Network.

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.