Last Updated: Sun Feb 06, 2011 23:55 pm (KSA) 20:55 pm (GMT)

Just changing generals is not freedom

Rami G. Khouri

Two of the most interesting things going on these days around the crisis in Egypt are happening outside Egypt. In the Middle East, leaders are anticipating demands for changes in their countries and are responding with pre-emptive measures that they expect will gain them enough time to remain in power and make sufficient adjustments to deflect popular discontent.

Further afield, the United States and the European Union are responding with half-hearted statements and initiatives that reveal their shallow commitment to true democratic transitions in the Arab world. Instead, they are frantically groping for ways to transfer power from one old military officer to a group of equally old colleagues. No wonder the Arab people are angry and risking their lives to achieve their rights: In their historic moment of self-determination and self-assertion in two countries at least – Tunisia and Egypt – ordinary Arabs hear a cacophony of Western calls for the military to assume power in some sort of undefined and non-guaranteed peaceful transition.

It is hard to understand how the military can be the solution when the military’s excessive control of civilian government has been the heart of the problem in the majority of Arab countries, where security, military and police services seized control of government in the 1970s and have ravaged their countries ever since.

It has been reported that the United States government is discussing with Egyptian officials a plan by which President Hosni Mubarak would step down immediately, and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman, with the Egyptian armed forces providing support. American and Egyptian officials are said to be holding talks about a proposal for Suleiman, backed by Chief of the Armed Forces Lt. Gen. Sami Annan and Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, to initiate an immediate process of constitutional reform – including a transitional government that includes members from across the spectrum of opposition groups and free and fair elections in September.

This sounds like a sensible approach, but it is difficult to imagine the armed forces of Egypt leading a peaceful transition to democratic rule under which they ultimately come under the control or oversight of a civilian government that truly and accurately represents the sentiments of the Egyptian population. There have been very few such cases of this sort of process in the Arab world. The most significant was probably the case of Field Marshal Abdel Rahman Sowar al-Dahab who headed a transition government in Sudan after the overthrow of President Jaafar Numeiry by the Sudanese in 1985, then handed over to a democratically elected government within the year. It is possible to make such transitions, but I doubt the Egyptian armed forces and a handful of aging generals are the ones who can make this happen.

The dilemma for the brave Egyptians who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives is that it is now clearer than ever to them and all other Arabs that the rights of Egyptians to live freely and determine their own lives are hostage to concerns of significant foreigners. Americans and Europeans are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood might play a leading role in a new government, and American and Israeli politicians and media commentators, for the most part with only some exceptions, are more concerned about the rights of Israelis to live in security than the rights of Egyptians to live in freedom.

The armed forces, it seems, are the key to moving forward toward real political change in Egypt while avoiding more large-scale violence or chaos. That is a dubious prospect because it is precisely the diminution of the role of the armed forces in governance, rather than their assuming center-stage, that holds the key to genuine transition to democratic, accountable and stable governance in the Arab world.

The cruel irony is that the Egyptian people are being denied an opportunity to define themselves through a civilian transitional government in favor of military control, when the Egyptian people probably have more experience than any other people in the world in running their own affairs, given their 5,500 years of urban life and public authority. Arab leaders throughout the region are doing a softer version of this sad dance, in which they propose limited changes and superficial engagement with opposition forces in order to essentially maintain the status quo of security- and military-ruled states.

What is the alternative? It will not come from Arab leaders, or aging Arab generals. It is for Arabs everywhere to persist in their cry for self-determination and the right to live as free human beings, and to keep demanding that government spending and military-security organizations both come under civilian oversight through credible representative institutions.

It is also time for American and European governments – for one moment, for just one brief, shining moment – to declare that they truly support the rights of Arabs to taste genuine liberty, and human and civil rights, rather than to engage in an embarrassing scramble to find the next Arab general to take over from the last Arab general.


*Published in Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR on Feb 5.

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