Armies and fake revolutions: Lessons from Egypt and Latin America

Military-sponsored coups have never brought democracy and prosperity, but anarchy and the rise of power-hungry military strongmen. Zimbabwe must learn from what happened in Egypt and Latin America, writes SIYABONGA HADEBE

It is almost seven years ago in 2011, following a wave of “revolutions” that took North Africa and the Middle East by storm. The unprecedented chaos finally engulfed Egypt on January 25 when millions turned out in major cities across that country, especially in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Commentators and analysts lauded the power of social media as hashtags and selfies captured the triumphant mood.

But government seemed to have other ideas. It did not take kindly to the protests, and tensions reached an all-time high between the police and protesters in places such as Suez and Alexandria. Police used strong-arm tactics to deal with the protests, ranging from using violence (e.g. tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons) to shutting down communications. Almost three days later on the 28th, the protests showed no sign of cooling down but the police had retreated.

The army replaced the police to perform the security role, and from then on, the situation remained almost entirely peaceful but people were still being killed and property was torched. Al Jazeera reported that in Suez and in Alexandria the military wanted to avoid an open armed confrontation with protesters. Crowds continued to call for strongman President Hosni Mubarak to go. Mubarak had been in power from 1981 to 2011, and he showed no immediate plan of allowing democratic rule in Egypt. His son Gamal appeared to be a likely successor to the presidency. This is almost similar to the Zimbabwe case; President Robert Gabriel Mugabe was the country’s first Prime Minister in 1980. At 93 years there was little or no talk of him going away after 37 years in charge. There was talk of his 52-year-old wife Grace being lined up to succeed him.

In both instances, the army facilitated “revolutions”. Since the Zimbabwean story is still ongoing, it is better to focus on what happened in Egypt in order to advance an argument that the military wants to channel the course of political developments in Zimbabwe to achieve their selfish ends. The army, as witnessed in Egypt, can only show signs of altruism to misdirect the wishes of the people of Zimbabwe.

When the protests raged in Egypt, the “revolution” took twists and turns. In an unexpected turn of events, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Minister of Defence and Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, appeared with the protesters in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Also, former atomic agency diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, who fancied his chances of becoming President of Egypt, was seen with crowds, where he said, “what we have begun cannot go back”. He went on to say, “you are the owners of this revolution. You are the future. Our key demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which each Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity.”

Mubarak had been apparently holding a meeting with military commanders at the time, where it is said that the army was instructed to use live ammunition to deal with the crowds. As the story goes, we are told that the army refused the order since it was there to “protect the people”. Tantawi released a statement saying: “The armed forces will not resort to the use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”

Mubarak continued to hold on to power. He appeared in an interview where he declared that he was “fed up” with being in power, but refused to resign. As with many in Egypt, Mubarak openly said he did not want Egypt “to descend into chaos in which the Muslim Brotherhood would be the beneficiaries.” Nobody anticipated what would occur with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was later elected as the President of Egypt.

There were so many events that took place in Egypt during the political meltdown, but the turning point of the whole “revolution” was when ElBaradei said, “Egypt will explode” because Mubarak was refusing to go and auspiciously called on the military to intervene. Soon thereafter, Mubarak stepped down, leaving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a council of high-ranking military officers headed by Tantawi, in control. Egyptians rejoiced in celebration nonetheless. ElBaradei screamed that “Egypt is free.” All of us believed him.

Protestors were seen climbing on to military tanks (and the soldiers were not bothered) after hearing the news of the resignation of Mubarak on the 11th February. Egypt appeared to be headed towards a different direction. For example, a Palestinian reconciliation agreement brokered by Egypt was signed by Ḥamās and Fatah in Cairo. This was somehow misconstrued to suggest that Egypt no longer adhered to Mubārak’s policy of isolating Ḥamās. Egypt also threatened to withdraw its ambassador to Israel. The geopolitical landscape in the Middle East was changing, so we thought.

The army was becoming friendlier.  As clashes began to subside, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (or the interim military government) issued an apology on November 24 for the deaths of about 40 protesters. Parliamentary elections were soon organised and won by the Muslim Brotherhood. On May 23, 2012, Egyptians voted in the first round of the presidential election. Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was later declared the winner. For the first time, Egypt had a democratically elected, civilian President leading to the country.

A mistake.

Muslim Brotherhood was and is still a terrorist organisation in the eyes of Egypt’s military and its close ally the US. The army had to act swiftly, with Washington’s support, to remove an elected leader Morsi for strange reasons. Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013 following mass protests a year after he took office. In response, former US Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that Egypt’s military was “restoring democracy” when it ousted Morsi, who was later in 2015 given a life sentence for “conspiring to commit terrorist acts with foreign organisations to undermine national security,” amongst others charges.

The lesson learnt after the military fooled Egyptians that they had had a revolution was that the conduct of generals was very easy to understand and predictable. Egypt’s military had been deeply invested in politics for around 60 years. The military became one of the most important factors in Egyptian politics after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 since days of Gamal El Nasser. Not only that, military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries. There are also large amounts of land owned by the military in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea coast.

The truth is that the military, not the howling street protesters, ultimately removed President Mubarak on the 11th February 2011, and also removed Morsi.

The military co-opted the Egyptian revolution after it initially wanted a “cohabitation arrangement” with the Morsi government, which failed. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had been appointed a defence minister in the Morsi government to safeguard the interests of the army in the post-Mubarak era. “As long as the Brothers didn’t interfere too much in military matters, then the military would allow them to get on with the business of (running a) civilian government,” one source claims.

Now turning attention to Zimbabwe. The most worrying factor with the Zimbabwean situation is that citizens, especially those on social media and the diaspora, think that anarchy is the best solution. The Zimbabwean Defence Forces (ZDF) have set the ball rolling for yet another potentially fake revolution in Zimbabwe. The ongoing anarchy in Zimbabwe will ensure that the country becomes another Lesotho in Southern Africa. Lesotho holds an unenviable record of instability and weak governments. All countries, as seen in Egypt, that attempted to solve problems with “anarchist” interventions are forever in anarchy.

Chaotic, unclear solutions might appear to be sound in the short-term but always prove seriously costly in the long run. Egyptians learned the hard way as the military continues to call the shots after a “revolution”. What is happening in Zimbabwe is almost a carbon copy of what happened in Egypt. Of course, the only difference is that the Zimbabwe “revolution” is without blood, for now at least. Nobody can guarantee with certainty what will happen if the secret plan of the military does not go in the direction the generals hope for. Like in Egypt, the Zimbabwe Defence Force holds considerable power and has very close links with the ruling Zanu-PF. It is almost impossible to imagine that the army will ever be happy with a “professional” status, having no influence in the country’s politics.

A “cohabitation arrangement” created under Mugabe’s close to a four-decade rule is not possible to maintain in a government without Chimurenga generals and Zanu-PF. What happened to Morsi will be repeated should the army feel that its power in Zimbabwean politics will be constrained.

It is safe to say that Egypt is an anarchical place; after similar celebrations as in Zimbabwe, just yesterday, it is quickly becoming clearer that Zimbabweans are heading towards a huge disappointment. Admittedly Mugabe will be gone, but all that characterised his rule will remain, namely: a weak economy, powerful army, old men in power, disappearing US dollars, fewer jobs, lack of democracy, and powerful generals. The military has not accounted for the infamous Gukurahundi in 1983 as well as for other atrocities in independent Zimbabwe. It is estimated that between 10 000 and 20 000 unarmed civilians died at the hands of Fifth Brigade in a security clampdown in Matebeleland. For many, Mugabe and his Zanu-PF comrades in government and the army “ruled the country for four decades using patronage and fear.”

The question is: Why do people suddenly have faith in generals who were part of a repressive system? Evidence from elsewhere suggests that people would accept military rule in exchange for security and maybe less economic problems. But all this has turned out to be a huge disappointment.

The point is, the so-called “democratising coups” are largely fiction. Wherever the army is involved, I have no faith… Not only in Egypt but Latin America also provides compelling evidence that a country will descend to chaos after military-led interventions. Latin American countries began ousting their dictators in the 1980s but “ridding countries of their militaristic culture, though, has been tougher.”  For example, In September 2017, Brazilian Gen. Antonio Hamilton Martins Mourão reawakened old fears when he assured people that “the military was prepared to intervene to save the country from its spiralling political and economic crisis.”  At the moment, a front-runner in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election is the former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro. He openly prefers the order of military rule to the mess of liberal democracy.

Latin American history shows that military dictatorships do not help nations advance or build democracy. Instead, according to Argentinian Ruth Diamant, “they leave stunted states unable to guarantee democratic legitimacy or ensure social well-being.”

Anarchy breeds anarchy!

Hadebe takes a keen interest in Politics, Economics and International Affairs

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