CAIRO: Growing in confidence after eight months in power, Egypt’s military generals appear more determined than ever to crush the protest movement that ousted Hosni Mubarak and has turned critical of their rule.
This week, they detained Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a blogger whose activism made him an icon of the anti-Mubarak uprising, and — in an accusation that was derided by fellow activists — said he was to blame for stirring up violence at an October protest where 27 people were killed when soldiers cracked down.
At the same time, the military leadership has been drumming up an image of itself as the nation’s foremost patriots, even as it steps up moves to silence critics, leaning on managers of media outlets to tone down commentary on the army or ban particularly vocal critics from appearing on political talk shows.
Activists worry the military aims to hold power for as long as possible to give itself time to create favorable conditions for one of its own or a civilian with military background to run for president in elections. In what many saw as a trial balloon, posters went up briefly last week in Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria voicing support for the head of the military, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, as a presidential candidate.
Tantawi and other generals on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces insist the military has no wish to stay in power and will not field a candidate in the presidential election, slated for late next year or early 2013. But activists doubt it will willingly give up the domination it has enjoyed over the nation for decades.
"I have serious doubts that the military will hand over power to civilians," said activist Ahmed Imam. "They will most likely choreograph a scenario in which they will appear to hand over power but will in fact hold on to power."
The arrest of Abdel-Fattah has fueled accusations that the military is trying to sweep away the taint its reputation suffered from the bloodshed at the Oct. 9 protest that turned into Egypt’s worst violence since Mubarak’s fall in February.
In the violence, 27 people — mostly Christians — were killed when troops stormed their protest outside the state television building. Video from the scene showed military armored vehicles barreling through crowds and soldiers heavily beating and firing on protesters. The military later blamed the Christians and "hidden hands" for instigating the violence, denying its soldiers had live ammunition.
On Sunday, the military ordered Abdel-Fattah held for questioning for 15 days on suspicion of inciting the rioting, damaging military property and assaulting on-duty troops. If charged, he could face trial before a military court, where thousands of protesters and other civilians have been prosecuted in recent months. Human rights groups have pressed for such trials to stop because of the tribunal’s swift and harsh verdicts.
At least 3,000 people marched through downtown Cairo on Monday to protest Abdel-Fattah’s arrest, chanting "Down, down with military rule" and "Alaa, we’re behind you, don’t stop." Abdel-Fattah, who turns 30 in November, was Egypt’s first blogger activist, launching a blog years ago organizing opposition to Mubarak. He has been a vocal critic of the military’s rule since Mubarak’s ouster. His wife, who is due this month to give birth to their first child, a boy, was among the marchers.
"They want to hide the actual criminals," rights lawyer and activist Gamal Eid said of the military’s allegations against Abdel-Fattah.
One of the protesters Monday, Ibrahim Zakaria, said the military wants Abdel-Fattah to take the blame. "But they won’t be able to. We were there … and we saw thugs and the military do it," said the 25-year-old.
The military first ordered the civilian Cabinet to investigate the Oct. 9 violence but then said it would carry out the probe itself. The move left activists complaining the military can’t be counted on to fairly investigate itself.
Asked about Abdel-Fattah’s arrest, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US shared the concerns of Egyptian protesters, who are demanding an end to military trials and cancellation of Egypt’s emergency law.
"We again urge the Egyptian government to handle these cases involving civilians in a civilian court, and with full transparency and due process of law," Nuland told reporters.
President Barack Obama made the same plea when he spoke last week with Tantawi, she said.
Abdel-Fattah refused to answer questions by military prosecutors on the grounds that the military was a party to the clashes, according to his father, Ahmed Seif, himself a veteran activist and a lawyer.
"I think Alaa my son is being used as a scapegoat. But there is a silver lining here in that his arrest revives interest in what really happened," said Seif, who sat in on his son’s interrogation.
The military has shrugged off criticism of its handling of the post-Mubarak transition, including complaints that it has kept in place much of the former ruling party and regime loyalists in powerful political and security posts, has resorted to Mubarak-era abuses like torture and has acted unilaterally in setting the course for the country.
Just as Mubarak often did, Tantawi has used scare-mongering and patriotism to justify the military’s heavy-handedness.
"We are patient, patient, patient for the sake of Egypt," he recently told reporters. "Look around us, do you want us to be like that?" he said, alluding to Libya’s civil war.
He also played on concerns over a post-Mubarak surge in crime, blamed by many on police forces who have refused to work. He said Egyptian women are being raped by criminals and so he would not lift the emergency laws that were a cornerstone of Mubarak’s regime.
Lifting of the widely hated laws, which give police almost unlimited arrest powers, has been a top demand of the revolutionaries.
Tantawi, who during Mubarak’s rule hardly ever appeared in public and was never seen out of his uniform, recently took a highly publicized stroll in the streets of Cairo in civilian attire, shaking hands, patting shoulders and chatting with passers-by. The walkabout further raised speculation of a presidential run.
In another move seemingly intended to whip up patriotic sentiments, state television carried live a ceremony to hoist the Egyptian flag on a newly built 575-foot (176-meter) iron tower in central Cairo. The Monday ceremony, presided over by a member of the ruling military council, coincided with Tantawi’s 76th birthday.
The generals have worked since February to build a perception that they were main partners with the youth groups in the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising that ended Mubarak’s 29-year rule, saying their pledge not to open fire on protesters was crucial to the success of the uprising.
The activists, however, counter that image by pointing out that troops stood by and watched as Mubarak loyalists attacked protesters and began to detain and try protesters before military tribunals from Jan. 28, the very day they were called out on the streets to take over from the discredited police. At least 12,000 people have since been tried by military courts.