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Friday, August 5, 2011

Mubarak trial allows military to shape Egypt in its image

Egyptian military pledges transition to democracy (Source: BBC)


By JAMES M. DORSEY

The spectacle of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak lying on a stretcher in a cage in a Cairo court room has allowed the country’s ruling military to distract attention away from its efforts to ensure that Egyptian democracy preserves the armed forces’ political, economic and social perks.

In fact, Mubarak’s stunning appearance in court restored a degree of confidence that military could be forced to accommodate protesters’ demands among many who had camped out earlier this year in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to force the Egyptian leader to resign after 30 years in office.

That perception serves the military’s purpose but may prove to be misleading even if it is bolstered by the fact that the armed forces by and large refused to intervene during the mass protests in January and February that led to them replacing Mr. Mubarak with a pledge to lead the country this year to free and fair elections.

Increasingly it is becoming evident that the military’s vision of what Egyptian democracy should look like differs from that of those who defied Mr. Mubarak’s security forces to push their calls for the president’s removal, the dismantling of his autocratic regime and far-reaching political and economic reform.

To many Egyptians, putting Mr. Mubarak, his sons and some of his most senior officials on trial was a litmus test of the military’s sincerity. Few have asked themselves what precisely was put to the test by making Mr. Mubarak the first autocratic Arab leader to be held accountable.

To be sure, the military was hesitant to put one of their own on trial and would have hoped that the ailing Mr. Mubarak would have passed away prior to the trial. Yet, it was the military who in February was the lynchpin in persuading the president to accept the protesters’ demand that he step down.

Mr. Mubarak had become a potential liability from the military’s perspective and a possible threat to its interests long before the protests erupted. The military opposed Mr. Mubarak’s plan to ensure that his son Gamal, who this week stood next to him in the court cage, rather than someone with roots in the armed forces would succeed him.

Mr. Mubarak’s trial could well give the 19 generals who constitute the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) the cover it needs to implement unpopular decisions.

Few doubt that the military would like to return to its barracks once it can hand over power to an elected government that operates within a constitutional framework that ensures that the armed forces remain beyond civilian control, retain their economic perks and is guaranteed the right to intervene in politics whenever they deems necessary.

In an indication of the military’s worldview, SCAF head Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi recently echoed claims of embattled Arab autocrats by charging that foreign forces were meddling in Egypt’s domestic and stirring up unrest.

Mr. Tantawi suggested that hundreds of thousands of protesters who last month poured into Cairo’s streets to pressure the military to move ahead with Mr. Mubarak’s trial had been unwittingly manipulated by these unidentified foreign forces who wanted to ensure that Egypt remains volatile.

The military is working on a number fronts to put its stamp on Egypt’s future. One battlefield is the media where it has sought to put itself beyond scrutiny and in a position to shape public opinion by decreeing limitations on freedom of the press.

It has instructed editors to "refrain from publishing any items -- stories, news, announcements, complaints, advertisements, pictures -- pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the armed forces without first referring to the Morale Affairs Department and the Department of Military Intelligence and Information Gathering."

It has also resurrected the information ministry which in Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt as well as in most autocratically ruled Middle Eastern and North African nations has functioned as the country’s official censor.

The military’s moves contrast starkly with its pledge when it took over from Mr. Mubarak in February to protect freedom of expression. At the time, the military urged "all honest journalists to ensure accuracy and objectivity and to allow all to express their views freely."

To be sure, much has changed since the downfall of the former president. Mubarak-era editors of state-run media seen as collaborators have been replaced as was the head of the Egyptian journalists' syndicate. Journalists forced into exile under Mr. Mubarak have returned to the country and scores of privately owned media have been established. The greater press freedom however has yet to be anchored in a new law that would guarantee the media’s ability to function as the fourth estate.

Even so, the number of cases of harassment of journalists and bloggers who are critical of military is on the rise.

One of Egypt's best known bloggers and social media activists, Hossam el-Hamalawy, was summoned for questioning by military prosecutors after he accused the military police of abuse on state-run television. The show’s presenter, Reem Maged, was also questioned.

The military prosecutor’s office questioned two journalists of the Al Wafd Party’s newspaper for reporting on an alleged deal between the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organized political group that would shape parliamentary and presidential elections in a way that would be conducive to the military’s interests

Prominent journalist Yosri Fouda was in May forced to cancel an episode of his talk show, Akher Kalam (The Last Word) on privately-owned channel ONTV. Mr. Fouda had scheduled an interview with a general, but had refused a request by the Morale Affairs Department to submit questions in advance.

Blogger Maikel Nabil, in the most gregarious attempt to muzzle the press, was sentence in April to three years in prison for posting a blog under the title, ‘The army and the people weren't ever one hand,’ that asserted that the military had attempted to obstruct the uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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