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Egypt army pledges of retreat could be an illusion: analysts
by Staff Writers
Cairo (AFP) May 20, 2012

HRW accuses Egypt military of torture, beatings
Cairo (AFP) May 19, 2012 - Human Rights Watch accused Egypt's military on Saturday of beating and torturing protesters arrested during clashes with soldiers in Cairo earlier this month.

The New York-based group said soldiers "beat and tortured" protesters arrested in the May 4 clashes outside the defence ministry and arrested at least 350 demonstrators.

"The brutal beating of both men and women protesters shows that military officers have no sense of limits on what they can do," Joe Stork, its deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in the statement.

HRW based its statement on testimony from released protesters and video footage that captured soldiers beating those they arrested.

The military has come under criticism before for brutally beating protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square last December and conducting virginity tests on detained women activists.

The protest outside the defence ministry began as a sit-in by supporters of a populist Islamist barred from running in next week's presidential election.

But it was joined by secular-leaning activists who believe the military, in charge since an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak last year, intends to exercise power even after the election, which should mark the end of military rule.

The military says one if its commandos was killed in the May 4 clashes, which pitted rock-throwing protesters against baton-wielding soldiers backed by armoured personnel carriers.

The clashes came two days after up to 11 people died when men in plainclothes attacked the sit-in, stirring a backlash against the military for not protecting the protesters.

Egypt's ruling military has promised a return to the barracks once a new president is elected, but the army's formidable political and economic weight means that such a withdrawal could be an illusion, analysts say.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in charge of the country since a popular uprising ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak, has repeatedly pledged to hand over the keys of the country by the end of June after landmark presidential polls.

The power transfer will symbolise the end of a turbulent transition period marked by violent protests, with the army accused of orchestrating the violence, maintaining a repressive apparatus and holding on to its privileges.

But the powerful institution insists it has kept its promise to lead the country towards democratisation, touting its ability to maintain a relative stability compared with other "Arab Spring" countries like Libya or Syria.

"The army is the only institution in the country that works. It still enjoys some popularity, it has real economic power while the police is unable to reorganise itself to maintain order," said Tewfik Aclimandos, Egypt specialist at the University Paris I.

"It has the ability to remain an important political actor for many more years," he said.

For Hassan Nafea, a leading Egyptian political columnist, "the role of the army will depend very much on the president to be elected."

If he comes from the old regime such as the ex-foreign minister and former Arab League chief Amr Mussa, or Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, "the army will continue to play an important role, and there will be no reform regarding its role or its place."

If another person wins, "troops would return to their barracks, but an agreement will be needed to ensure the process goes smoothly. Many interests, including economic ones, are at stake, and it will have to be dealt with with tact," Nafea added.

One of the main Islamist candidates, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, has promised to confine the military to matters of defence, but without explicitly saying how this would be done.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates parliament and has fielded Mohammed Mursi, could give a harder time to the army, with which it has historic rivalries.

Over the past few months the Brotherhood has alternately criticised the army and issued ambiguous statements suggesting they can find an arrangement with the military.

"The SCAF considers itself the sole actor possessing the experience, maturity and wisdom necessary to protect the country from domestic and external threats," the International Crisis Group said in a report on the army.

Now, "its objective is to stay in the background yet remain an arbitrator; and shun the limelight even as it retains decisive influence," the think tank said.

The army has been the backbone of the Egyptian system since the fall of the monarchy in 1952, with all the country's presidents since then hailing from military backgrounds.

Rumours and debates in recent months appear to indicate that the army's wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.

These issues could be addressed in the country's new constitution, the drafting of which has slowed down due to political obstacles.

The army is also protective of its vast and opaque financial empire, which includes countless companies in varied fields, from construction to hospitality, food and cement.

General Mahmoud Nasr, member of the SCAF, warned in March that the military "will not allow any interference, from anyone, in the economic plans of the army."

Since a peace deal signed with Israel in 1979, the Egyptian army also receives $ 1.3 billion from the United States in annual assistance.


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