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'They wanted to break us'

An Egyptian army officer's diary of military life in a revolution.

india Updated: Dec 29, 2011 23:12 IST
Hindustan Times

Despite the crucial role played by the military in Egypt's upheaval, little is ever heard from those at the heart of the armed forces: the ordinary, mid-ranking personnel. Now, one insider has penned a unique account of life in the Egyptian army. A reserve officer for several years, he was in active service throughout the anti-Mubarak uprising. The officer's identity has been concealed and the text below has been edited for clarity:

"Officer training was intense. Our days started at 5 am, and conditions were terrible. It was an attempt to 'break us' and transform us from civilians to military men. The hours were filled with pointless assemblies where we'd stand for hours in the sun, the recital of army songs, singing the national anthem and following orders from the officers who would treat us terribly. But even those who gave us lessons would complain about the army and tell us how shocked they were at how different it had been from their expectations.

Regulation food was awful and served with dirty plates and spoons; I believe they arranged things like that deliberately as it was possible to buy your own food instead from the well-stocked cafeteria and this was a way for the army to make money.

Punishment for misdemeanours included being forced to stay at the training academy on your days off, being made to lie down with your hands behind your back and then crawl on the ground, and being told to stand under the sun for an hour in full uniform and equipment, or getting thrown into military jail. It was all designed to humiliate you, but often we preferred being sent to jail; it was better than the normal daily schedule because at least it meant we were out of the sun. Sometimes we'd rebel until the prison was full, at which point they'd have to try and be nicer to us.

After Mubarak fell and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) began, the top brass moved to secure the loyalty of mid-level and junior officers. Whenever a big Friday street demonstration in Tahrir Square took place we would all receive a bonus of between 250 and 500 Egyptian pounds.

It's ridiculous; at the height of the unrest reserve officer salaries doubled and everyone was getting huge bonuses all the time. Most full-time officers didn't really care what was happening politically, they were just happy with the extra money.

It was clear that the army wanted to avoid any form of protest in the country once Mubarak was gone. The aim was to win over more of the Islamist population who might have traditionally been more hostile to the armed forces, as well as scaring the shit out of anyone else who might be thinking of holding a demonstration. Each confrontation with protesters was a test to measure the reaction of the general public and see what level of brutality and violence they could get away with.

That was especially obvious during the Maspero events. The media, army and interior ministry have always worked hand in hand for their personal goals, and in this instance they worked to escalate the chaos and division between Muslims and Christians. You have to bear in mind that for the most part, officers only watch mainstream Egyptian television and so they never see the YouTube videos showing the darker side of Scaf. They're in denial.

But as the months went on, despite this ignorance and the generous bonus system, dissent against commander-in-chief of Scaf, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi has grown. Most of the mid-level officers now think of him as Mubarak's right-hand man, and they hate the fact that Scaf's violence has tarnished the army's image in the eyes of the public. More and more, mid-level officers are turning against Scaf, and against Tantawi."