"When the Legitimacy of the Regime Is Lost, You Have To Take Sides With the Egyptian People"
A rare interview with members of Egypt's Supreme Military Council.
Since taking control of Egypt from President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, the Supreme Military Council has offered only fleeting glimpses of its thinking via posts on its official Facebook page. But in a rare interview, two of the council's 36 members and a third senior general talked to Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth about the revolution that ended Mubarak's 30-year reign and the path ahead for Egypt. The generals spoke only on the condition that their names not be published. Excerpts follow:
L.W.: Were the Egyptian armed forces aware the country was moving in a certain direction before the events [of January] took place?
The last 10 years gave indications that something was going to happen. In 2011, we thought we would witness change.
L.W.: It was known that there was a lot of unemployment, food prices were high, and then there was Facebook. What are the things we missed as observers from the outside?
It was about the succession of power, Gamal Mubarak, and a lack of social equity—the erosion of a major part of the middle class. The people who were aware of what was happening were the high-level commanders, not necessarily the middle or the junior [soldiers].
The demonstrations started on Jan. 25. We went as armed forces to the streets on Jan. 28. We stayed calm and observing until Feb. 11, when former President Mubarak stepped down. The important consideration we bore in mind is that when the legitimacy of the regime is lost, you have to take sides with the Egyptian people.
L.W.: The armed forces could have taken the side of the president. There must have been a point when you had to decide which way to go.
As long as the regime and the people are one unity—the military's role is to support. [This changes] once we feel there is a crack between these two forces.
L.W.: Were the upper and lower ranks united in what they wanted to do?
L.W.: There were no old generals whose loyalty to Mubarak remained strong?
At the beginning, we gave the presidential institution the full opportunity to manage events. If it [had been] able to succeed, nothing would have happened. We would have pulled our people back to the barracks. But they were incapable of responding to events. On Feb. 10, there were demonstrations that amounted to millions of people all over the country.
The police and security forces collapsed completely on Jan. 28. [For] 10 days the country was boiling. [It] made us worry that the country was going into utter chaos. With President Mubarak stepping down from the presidency, the Egyptian armed forces were assigned to run the country. ... The most sacred mission for the supreme council is to turn over the country to a civilian authority that is democratically and fairly elected.
L.W.: Why did you decide to have parliamentary elections so quickly instead of giving some of the newer parties time to form?
We wanted to give assurances to the Egyptians that the military is not aspiring for power.
L.W.: People say that by holding parliamentary elections in September, you are giving the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage because they are so well-organized.
The Muslim Brotherhood may get a majority in the election. If they come to power, they will not be re-elected. [In the past] people only voted for the Muslim Brotherhood to oppose the regime. ... We are doing our best to start a democratic process, but for years afterward we will have to make it more mature and stronger.
L.W.: Can I conclude that the army will be playing an important role behind the scenes?
When most revolutions start, the people who start them have both the capability and the vision. But in our case the military has the capability, but the vision and the ideas are derived from the people.
L.W.: That could be a plus or a minus, right?
One dilemma we are facing now is that it is not left to us completely to run the country. We have to respond and to satisfy the aspirations and hopes of the people. The second dilemma is that we cannot find real leadership from the people here who can sit down at the negotiating table and propose their ideas and discuss them and come to compromises.
What we are dealing with now is leading ideas, not leading persons. The ideas are proposed on the Internet and Facebook. ... If they are accepted by a large number of people, the next day they are on the streets ... and ask [us] to respond to it as a demand.
L.W.: How do you cope with something like that?
It is a problem. The ceiling of the demands is endless. We may also say that these ideas are ... not deep enough, because the young people generating these ideas don't have enough political experience. I'll give you an example: We talk about the Rafah border crossing from the political and security point of view and the international commitments we have. We look for Rafah to be open [only] under certain conditions and controls.
The Palestinians say on the Internet that Gaza is completely blocked and the Egyptians have to open the crossing. The next day, it is a public demand from the Egyptians. ... This is pressure on us. And, of course, we have to respond.
L.W.: Your foreign minister told me Egypt is opening up to Gaza and sending in whatever they need. ... Is it the army that makes the decision?
The power is in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The council is responsible for running the whole country in this transition period. …
There was a demand that all people detained for political or other reasons except criminal reasons be released.
L.W.: Detained during the protests or before them?
Over years before the revolution—[jailed] for political or religious reasons—anything other than criminal reasons.
L.W.: What did you do about that?
They were released. And now they constitute part of the problem on the street.
L.W.: What is the supreme council's attitude toward private business?
We have honorable businessmen, honest people who are really trying to do some real development in the country—they will receive our full respect.
L.W.: After all, businessmen are in business to make money. Either that is OK or not.
We are welcoming them very much. There is a false impression because of the pursuing of some of the dishonest businessmen that the atmosphere is not friendly or has changed. In reality it has not changed.
L.W.: It doesn't give a great impression to some when your president is being hauled off to jail. Does the army have any apprehension about [putting Mubarak on trial?]
Respect for the law is part and parcel of the Egyptian military tradition. [President Mubarak] is only under investigation.
L.W.: But the army had to allow him to be investigated.
It was a clear decision from the supreme council of Egypt not to interfere in whatever way in the legal formalities of pursuing or bringing people to justice.
I would like to mention one thing about the demands the people asked for during the revolution. They asked us to take extraordinary procedures with the officials of the previous regime. These demands represent major pressure on us and at certain times touch negatively on the amount of trust between the people and the Egyptian armed forces. We were determined not to take any exceptional procedures in the prosecution of anybody.
L.W.: Do you think that Egypt's strategic orientation toward Israel will change? Polls show a majority of Egyptians favor abrogating the treaty. How does the military view this?
Egypt fully respects its commitments. This has to be very clear. The peace treaty is part of our commitments and undertakings. It is not possible that 30 years of good relations with the United States will be easily obliterated or cancelled.
L.W.: Going back to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship …
There has been strong military cooperation between Egypt and the U.S. There were joint U.S.-Egyptian training exercises every other year—the biggest training exercises in the world. We have had a wonderful two-sided relationship with the U.S.
The revolution proved that the Egyptian armed forces are the pillar of security inside Egypt.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.