- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CAIRO — The soldiers shouted, “Raise your head high — you’re Egyptian.”

It was one of the most inspiring chants by young protesters during Egypt’s revolution, encapsulating the newfound pride of a people rising up after a lifetime of humiliation under authoritarian rule.

From the soldiers, it was a taunt.

They barked it over and over at an activist lying belly down on the ground, stripped to his boxers, his hands and right leg tied behind his back. Each time Ramy Issam obeyed, he said, a soldier would stomp his head back onto the marble of the courtyard in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

To the youths who led the protests and to a growing number of other Egyptians, the secretive council of top generals that now rules the country is looking too much like the regime it replaced — authoritarian, ready to use brutal tactics and out of touch with the nation’s aspirations.

The military, which was greeted with cheers when it pushed out longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February, has proclaimed its embrace of the revolution and democratic elections this year.

But protesters have returned to Tahrir Square for a sit-in since July 8 to complain that the military has hijacked the transition and has been reluctant to purge members of the old regime.

Reported abuses add darker undertones to those complaints. Multiple reports say detainees have been tortured.

To an unprecedented extent, the army also has been bringing civilians before military courts, notorious for their swift rulings with little chance for defense. In five months, more than 10,000 civilians have been put on military trial. They included protesters, activists and at least one journalist who wrote an article critical of the army, according to rights groups tracking the detentions.

“The revolution has been stolen by the military council,” said Mr. Issam, the long-haired “Singer of the Revolution” who is known for rousing the crowd in Tahrir Square with political tunes on his Spanish guitar.

“We made the revolution and we gave it to the military council on a silver platter. But everyone must know that we have learned how to say, ‘No.’ “

Mr. Issam seemed close to tears as he visited the Egyptian Museum in early July for the first time since his detention and recounted his ordeal to an Associated Press reporter.

He was among dozens grabbed by soldiers who broke up a March 9 sit-in in Tahrir protesting the generals’ slowness in implementing the revolution’s post-Mubarak demands.

Mr. Issam and the others were dragged to the nearby museum, the treasure trove of pharaonic antiquities that the military used as an impromptu base at times during the uprising. There, Mr. Issam said, he was beaten with wooden sticks and iron rods and given electric shocks. His hair was cut off with broken glass.

After a public outcry over that day’s crackdown, the council promised to review reports of torture, but no results of a review have been made public. It also admitted that some detained women were forced to take humiliating “virginity tests” and said the practice would not be repeated.

Mr. Issam recalled the warning shouted at him amid the beatings by one of the officers: “We will make you know who are the real masters of this country.”

The irony of Egypt’s revolution was that it put one of the pillars of Mr. Mubarak’s regime in control of the process of dismantling that regime.

The contradiction has caused much of the friction since Mr. Mubarak’s Feb. 11 fall, as the young activists who led the uprising push for dramatic democratic change in the face of what they see as resistance from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, made up of generals in their 60s to 80s, all appointed by Mr. Mubarak.

The council says it is committed to change and that it consults frequently with all political factions. But the council has rarely amended its transition plan or moved against former regime figures without the pressure of more street demonstrations — and even then its concessions have been partial.

An attitude seen as paternalistic has rankled revolutionaries whose uprising was in great part against the “we will tell you what’s best” tone of Mr. Mubarak’s regime.

In response to the new protest camp in Tahrir, council member Maj. Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari went on state TV two weeks ago to repeat vows to hand over power after elections.

But he also warned that the military would not put up with “deviations” by protesters that “harm the nation’s interests.” As he spoke, he wagged his finger at the camera.

The scolding brought open ridicule. Newspaper cartoons depicted parents using the general’s speech to frighten naughty children.

Few think the council, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, wants to directly rule beyond the election, but protesters suspect it aims to keep as much as the old regime in place as it can and preserve the military’s status as the ultimate arbiters in the country.

Since the 1952 army coup that toppled the monarchy, the military has suffused Egypt’s regime.

All four presidents in this country of 80 million have come from the military. Generals were given lucrative and important jobs on retirement, including as provincial governors, mayors, heads of state-owned companies and ambassadors.

Other forces dominated the state’s workings, particularly Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party and the powerful internal security forces.

The military stood above the fray, content with its perks, including billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Criticism of it was unheard of — any news article about it had to be cleared by military censors, so most media stopped trying to report on it.

After Mr. Mubarak’s fall, the military council declared itself the “protector” of the revolution, capitalizing on its decision not to fire on protesters during the 18-day uprising.

But as the country’s politicians debate the status of the military in the new Egypt, activists warn that it isn’t necessarily a force for democracy.

“We are repeatedly told that the army in Egypt is great because it does not do what the armies of Syria and Libya are doing to regime opponents there,” activist Mona Seif el-Islam said.

“It is not true. The army here is just as dirty, but in a different way.”

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