Egyptians love and respect their armed forces. Ever since the Egyptian army reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in 1973, the army has been held in high regard by the people.
When military tanks rolled into Cairo on the evening of January 28, they were greeted with cheers, kisses, and flowers. On that Friday, they were received as saviors from the brutality of Egypt’s hated Central Security Forces, who for four days had attempted to put down the Egyptian uprising by using force against unarmed demonstrators. Finally, the army had arrived.
As demonstrations continued in Tahrir Square, tanks were covered with men, women, and children waving the Egyptian flag. Army personnel were greeted with smiles across the city, and they remained true to their word: they did not use violence against the demonstrators.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was charged with the country’s administration on February 11, when Hosni Mubarak resigned from the presidency after thirty years in power. For the most part, Egypt’s people approved. There was some resignation, but the military is one of the few institutions most Egyptians trust.
Around the time of Mubarak’s resignation, there were whispers that the army was detaining people and holding them in the Egyptian Museum, located on the edge of Tahrir Square. The news stirred some talk, but it soon died down.
Over the past few days, however, the army’s relationship with the people has been tested. On Friday night, military police surrounded demonstrators outside the Egyptian parliament in downtown Cairo and instructed journalists to leave. In Tahrir Square, the army took down tents and chased demonstrators from the square with sticks and tasers.
Egyptians were outraged.
The incidents took place well after midnight, around 2am. “Why are they surrounding us, civilians, with weapons?!” asked Gigi Ibrahim, a young activist who has become a recognized and semi-permanent face in Tahrir Square. “The army is the same as the Central Security, just in different clothes,” wrote angry Egyptians on Twitter. Comparing the highly respected army to the hated and feared security forces shows how deeply shaken Egyptians were by the army’s actions.
It was a severe blow to their faith in the armed forces.
The next morning, cafes were buzzing with the news, as were social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Some argued that the army was trying to enforce the curfew – which should run from midnight to 6am, and which demonstrators have mostly ignored – but had gone about doing so the wrong way. Some said the army was unused to dealing with civilians, others said its actions were inexcusable.
On Saturday night, dozens of groups of friends sat in plastic chairs drinking tea or Turkish coffee around small tables at El Boursa, a group of cafes in the financial district in downtown Cairo. Many were discussing the recently announced constitutional amendments, but the discussion inevitably turned to the incident with the army.
“What happened last night is very bad,” commented an elderly artist who had been an activist in his youth. Behind his glasses, his eyes were troubled.
Haitham, a young activist and member of the al-Ghad liberal party, was also concerned. “How could this happen?” he asked.
Many were worried about the incident, fearing it might be the beginning of a new policy of action by the military but hoping it wasn’t. As worrying as the events of Friday night were, many Egyptians wanted to believe the army’s actions were a mistake, and that the army was still on their side. On Saturday afternoon, the army released a statement on its Facebook page apologizing for the incident and saying some people were trying to undermine to goals of the revolution.
Some Egyptians were willing enough to accept the statement, but others remained wary.
The army must be extremely careful in both its actions and its image during this critical time in Egypt, because the people’s faith in the army is just as vital as sincerity on the part of the army if the transition to democracy is to be achieved. If the people’s trust in the army is severely shaken, their trust in the process facilitated by the army will be as well.
Already another video has begun circulating on Facebook and YouTube, showing a group of men detained by the army in Port Said. One man, blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back, is prodded by a soldier with a stick-like taser. Should similar evidence continue to surface, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is going to have a major problem on its hands.
Egyptians seem willing to forgive the army once, but they may not do so twice.
** This post was originally published as an op-ed in Bikya Masr