In Egypt’s military, a march for change

Reuters reports: On a warm Wednesday morning last October, around 500 Egyptian army officers based at the Air Defence Institute on the outskirts of Alexandria staged a mini revolt.

According to a lieutenant colonel with direct knowledge of the protest, the men were angry about the punishment given to a fellow officer by his superiors. After refusing to train, the officers demanded to meet either Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s military and in effect the country’s acting president, or his second in command. They wanted to meet the commanders, they said, to make the case for better treatment.

“Their reasoning was: Egypt is having a revolution and they too have demands,” the lieutenant colonel said.

The rebellion, unreported before now and confirmed by three other officers in the unit, lasted several days. As Egyptians were calling for quicker and deeper change – demands directed at the military council that runs the country – at least one part of the country’s military was itself split.

The popular protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year were rooted in the yawning gap between rich and poor, and the desire to get rid of a leader about to enter his fourth decade in power. The wealth in Egypt was, and is, controlled by a small and often uniformed elite. To most Egyptians, Mubarak, a career officer in the air force, was both symbol and cause of those inequities.

As in the country, so in the barracks. Over the past six months, more than a dozen serving or recently retired mid- and lower-ranking officers have said they and their colleagues see Egypt’s revolution as their own chance to win better treatment, salaries, and improved conditions and training. They are tired, they said, of a few very top officers becoming rich while the vast majority of officers and ordinary soldiers struggle.

As the military and the Muslim Brotherhood both press their own candidates ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for May and June – former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman entered the race as the army’s choice last week and Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s deputy, two weeks ago – the tensions in the lower ranks shed light not only on the country’s most powerful institution but on Egypt itself.

“Military ranks struggle like the rest of Egyptians because, like Egyptian society, the wealth of the military is concentrated at the top and does not trickle down. You have to reach a specific rank before wealth is unlocked,” one major said.

Tantawi, his Chief of Staff Sami Annan and other top commanders have moved to contain the officers’ frustration, holding regular meetings with military units in an attempt to boost morale and assure soldiers that their salaries will be raised and their concerns addressed, military leaders and mid-ranking officers who have attended the meetings said.

That seems to have placated the disgruntled officers, who say they will hold off on pushing their demands further until the ruling military council hands over power to an elected civilian government. But they insist they need real change. [Continue reading…]

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