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A Return to Tahrir Square to Demand Accountability

April 9, 2011

More than 100,000 protesters packed Tahrir Square today for a “Friday of Purification and Accountability”, demanding the prosecution of Hosni Mubarak and members of his regime.

Chanting, “Oh Field Marshal, get your act together” and “Tantawy, Tantawy, we’ve been very patient” the protesters called on the Supreme Council, led by Field Marshall Tantawy, to move faster in investigating, prosecuting and punishing members of the old regime both for corruption over many years, but also for state violence directed at the protest movement.

It’s an invidious task for Tantawy, himself a former Mubarak crony. The government has announced an intention to send delegations overseas to recover monies squirreled away in foreign bank accounts. It has put one member of the old regime on trial and announced investigation of at least four others. And the government has dumped 17 Mubarak appointees from the state media. But the protesters want to see Mubarak and his main supporters on trial.

But the military government also passed a law against demonstrations like this one.

One of the most interesting things about the protest is reports that many rank-and-file soldiers and some officers joined the protesters in their chants calling for Mubarak’s prosecution, risking disciplinary action or even arrest.

This participation suggest the possibility of some breakdowns between the conscript and officer classes within the military.

The military is not a single coherent institution. The officer class has always been part of the regime; many members of the political ruling class are drawn from the ranks of military officers. Mubarak himself used to be commander of the Air Force. However, unlike many other autocracies, the military has not typically been directly used as a tool of oppression.

The militant arm of the officers is the military police, which appears to be largely responsible for the torture of protesters that created an enormous breach of trust between protest leaders and the military recently. Until last month, most people had noparticular thoughts about this branch, but many rank-and-file soldiers tell cautionary tales about running afoul of the military police and being tortured.

Rank-and-file soldiers (including most petty officers, I believe) are conscripts. Military service is mandatory in Egypt, so nearly all people know someone in the military, and most see it as an important and positive institution made up of ordinary folks from ordinary families.

On the one hand, the officer class has always benefited from the generally positive image people have of the military because of conscription; on the other hand, officers must be careful in a civil uprising to know what they can and cannot order the rank and file to do. Once you give and order that is not obeyed–to open fire on unarmed civilians, for example–the entire military edifice is in trouble.

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