I realize the American fetish for quickly moving on to the Next Big Spectacle has largely washed the events of the last few weeks out of our collective memories, but there are some heroes of the revolution in Egypt who have gone largely unsung (in the US media, at least).
Let us cast our minds back to January 30th. The protests were still ramping up in intensity, and the Egyptian Army had already moved into Cairo and surrounded Tahrir Square. Despite the efforts of Mubarak’s goon squads, the protesters had refrained from erupting into mass violence. During those tense hours when security forces in disguise were attacking the protesters with rocks, molotov cocktails, and occasional sniper fire, Mubarak ordered the Army to open fire on the protesters.
I have mentioned before that the Egyptian Army is largely composed of conscripts, and also that the Army is widely seen as a way out of the poverty which is the normal lot of most Egyptians. Due in part to the close working relationship with the US military, Egypt’s military is considered to be a generally professional force- even by western standards. The Egyptian military is very highly regarded by most of the citizens. When the Army first arrived at the Square, the protesters welcomed them warmly with cheers and patriotic songs, and the soldiers were visibly sympathetic to the protesters.
When the order came, some of the soldiers dropped their rifles and joined the protesters. The others looked to their officers and unit leaders for guidance. The unit leaders and tank commanders- generally the sons and grandsons of former soldiers- pulled out their cell phones and called their ex-military parents and grandparents and asked, “What should I do?” Unknown to most of the world at the time, History held its breath. Would Tahrir Square become another Tiananmen?
From the earlier generations of Egyptian soldiers came the reply. You should not fire upon your fellow Egyptians. Disobey this order. As we now know, the Army listened, and chose to refuse to massacre their countrymen.
There are those who, from the comfort and safety of their homes in the US, claim that the military refused the order out of concern for their extensive commercial interests within Egypt’s economy. Egypt’s military does have wide-ranging commercial enterprises throughout the economy, and this may have been a factor in the larger decision on whether or not to open fire on their own people. This does not take away from the very real and very personal risks those men took by telling their President, “Sir! No sir!” Disobeying such an order took enormous amounts of courage, for President Mubarak would have dealt very harshly with the Army had he retained his position. The Army leadership decided that the President had issued an illegal order, and they would refuse to carry it out. Under similar conditions in China and Iran, the troops turned on their own citizens. To their everlasting credit, the Egyptian military proved that they really are a professional force and refused to emulate the butchers of Tehran and Beijing.
Despite my philosophical distrust of military rule, Egypt’s military has shown that they are the guarantors of liberty for their countrymen. Perhaps the military will come to be a stabilizing force such as the Turkish military, or they may turn into another military government such as Myanmar (Burma). What the future may bring is always in doubt, but there are some unshakable truths which offer some hope that the future may not necessarily be too terrible: The people of Egypt are better off today than they were on January 25th, and the soldiers of Egypt’s Third Army proved to be far, far better men than their recently-deposed President.
Current status: Hopeful
Current music: Such Great Heights by The Postal Service