Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Wrong People In the Wrong Place

Yesterday about 350 bloggers in Egypt wrote posts regarding the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. (As a personal aside, I find this propensity for supreme councils to be a bit burdensome...couldn't they have an easier name? Somehow SCAF actually does work better as a name.) Most of these posts were in Arabic, but some were in English, which meant that I could read them. I really wish I'd learned to read Arabic, but at my age, time is a bit short to reach a real level of competency.

Most of the posts were, quite naturally considering the state of affairs in Egypt, not exactly pro-military rule. Everyone is upset over the arbitrary detentions and the fact that frankly nothing much is working properly. It's true that nothing much is working properly, and I believe that the fact that our undear and barely departed fearless leader entrusted the country to the SCAF has a great deal to do with our current problems. One post, written by the son of a military man, points out that the army simply isn't equipped for the job. "And here comes the problem, the army / SCAF may be great at doing their job "protecting the people" but they're certainly not knowledgeable, trained, experienced or ready to do a totally different job: "Leading a country of 85 million people in a pivotal point of its history". It doesn't mean they're bad people, it doesn't mean they're on the "dark side of the force", it's just that you're asking a mechanic to remove your tonsils. Those inflamed, complicated, infected tonsils that have been part of your body for years and that you have to remove now, with a great deal of surgical precision." But we were left with the mechanics to remove our tonsils and to treat our cancers. Not wonderful.

This post hit home to me, being a balanced consideration both of what the SCAF was doing wrong and also a consideration of why this might be happening. I do believe that the top ranks of the military (unfortunately those who do make up SCAF) are part and parcel of the old regime. They make outrageous salaries, have incredible perks, and are basically accustomed to being immune to the normal problems of Egyptian life, living in their bubble world, much like the wealthy businessmen who did so well as long as they could call on the influence of friends in government.

It's worth looking at what the military in Egypt actually do. This is a huge institution that ingests vast quantities of poorly educated young men each year for a two year stint of work and, for much of them, deprivation. I live between two main Army bases, Beni Yusuf and Dahshur, and my farming neighbours and my staff have plenty of stories of their time spent in the military, stories of terrible food, long work hours at tedious jobs of maintenance or sometimes working at the homes or farms of the military commanders. We've all seen groups of conscripts doing basic construction work along roads or such things. One of my neighbours (someone who's moved out of his fancy house at this point) was an officer in the police and used his recruits as drivers, gardeners, handymen and general lift-and-haul personnel at his home. This didn't raise a single eyebrow anywhere as it was standard for someone of his rank. So basically, the largest portion of the army consists of poorly educated conscripts who are enrolled in a two year course of indentured servitude....they may be learning to be soldiers, perhaps will be taught the rudiments (never more than the rudiments) of driving a truck or car, some mechanical skills, or perhaps will simply water a lawn somewhere. The better educated members of society generally get assigned to higher ranks on conscription and can either do a desk job or with the right kind of connections, avoid the entire experience all together. Then you have the lifers who have gone to the military college and dived into the the military pool with the hopes of surfacing as a brigadier general someday. These people have almost nothing in common with the conscripts. When the tank commanders did not fire on the protesters in Tahrir during the revolution, this was the work of the conscripted officers. These were men who were doing their two year obligation and when looking at the protesters could think "There, but for the grace of God, go I". They knew that when their time in the military was up, they could easily be those same protesters. This could never be said of the higher ranks. They are bosses and will always be bosses....at least they hope so.

But what does this huge institution actually DO? Well, it hasn't fought in a war since 1973, so that isn't its job at this point. Theoretically, its job is to be ready to fight in a war and this is the rationale for the massive military aid that the armed forces receive from the US, to use an example. I've known some of the military personnel who have come to do training with the Egyptian military, and without exception, their advice to me has always been "just hope that you never need them". A helicopter pilot noted that his students would do anything to avoid flying...a troubling habit as a pilot relies on practice to be able to do his job. If pilots of any kind don't fly for practice, when they need to do so under stress they are unlikely to be of much use. An engine mechanic had the same sort of comment...so it would appear that the zest for military work in the middle to lower management range is somewhat lacking. But there also seems to be little concern about this from the upper echelons. Perhaps they are concentrating on something else?

As a semi-outsider I have noticed an interesting pattern in the Egyptian business community in that virtually every company of any size had some sort of general or something attached to it. So the military is a business school? I wouldn't call it that as many of these individuals were there for their connections to the old regime rather than for their abilities to actually do anything. Those that I met were, on the whole, extremely rigid, not likely to consider any new practices or ideas, and tended to be happy to work in strict chain-of-command situations. When pushed to release information, or change a business paradigm, or learn something new, they were often shocked into immobility. The military, however, have extensive business enterprises. They do a lot of construction work, they own and run hospitals that, while they are meant for military personnel, are actually used for private patients, and the number of entertainment and vacation properties that are run by and for the military is rather staggering. The Egyptian military have an extraordinary number of business enterprises that go back to an initial concept that the military should be self-supporting, but now go quite beyond that.

But does all of this economic activity make them qualified to run a country? On the contrary, their interests mean that they are more concerned with protecting themselves from any interference from outside the military than they are in integrating with the rest of society. It's known that any system soon aligns itself with whatever it takes to preserve that system...no matter what the pronounced goals of any system might be said to be. Would I be surprised if it somehow is "difficult" or "inconvenient" to hold elections that might see civilian oversight of the military? Absolutely not. Their slowness to deal with old problems, and they are almost without number at this point, is hard not to notice. Out near where I live, farmers are wondering about planting and selling crops in the coming seasons as there used to be some guidance from the ministry of agriculture, guidance that is entirely lacking at this point. They don't know how the market is going to work, whether the government will pay a certain price for needed crops as in the past, or what to expect from life in general. As a result the prices of many agricultural products are rising as the farmers are hesitant to sell something that they might need for themselves. Our Egyptian farmers are wildly underrated, but I've seen them to be industrious, canny individuals who know how to coax the maximum number of food crops out of the valley's soil. They do, however, need some input from the ministry of agriculture and this doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

At this point the SCAF are in the unenviable position of being criticised quite correctly for their mishandling of the daily security issues, their inability to get ordinary police back to work, their detention and abuse of protesters, the lack of information and preparation for democratic elections, the lack of effort on the part of the ministries to assist businesses or the farmers. They were given a job that they were not prepared to do, and that many argue they had no real intention of actually doing properly. If, in fact, they have been working with honorable intentions, perhaps they should be asking for some help to accomplish this task. At the very least, they could arrange that the "bad guys" of the old regime are not appointed to current positions of power. The current policies do leave everyone asking whether they can be trusted to help to run honest elections if and when they decide that they will occur.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani


ML Awanohara said...

Thank you, Maryanne, for this lucid account of what's going on in Egypt right now, seen from your semi-outsider's perspective.

Would you be interested in telling us a little more at The Displaced Nation -- a new blog for people who have crossed national boundaries. Yesterday I posted about what it's like to live in another country during a natural disaster or political upheaval. Would love to get your thoughts in the mix!

Tamer London said...

I hope that now, when there will be democratic elections in the country and people give their free votes, things will get much much better!

Gordon Homes said...

There's been so much progress and change over the past decades. It's great there is such a positive direction for Egypt!

Julia Homes said...

I agree with you, Tamer! This is the idea of democratic society, everyone should feel free to vote and epress their opinion freely.