Groping in the fog of war

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

July 27 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: The battle to win hearts and minds is today’s war of words. Not much has changed since Carl von Clausewitz defined military strategy as the employment of battles to gain the end of war. Soldiers are deployed with unambiguous objectives that envisage an end in sight.

In his treatise On War, the great Prussian military theorist Clausewitz (1780 -1831) espoused: All action must be planned in a mere twilight, which like the effect of a fog or moonshine gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.

As the Tahrir demands rose to a crescendo in early February the army’s mission became restoring order. The fog is clearing to reveal the next stage after containment.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced measures to transfer power to civilians sometime after the election of a parliament and a president. That appears to be the unambiguous ultimate objective.

The elections are to be monitored by local civil society organizations, as was the case for the constitutional elections in March. However, according to Associated Press Egypt’s ruling generals are seeking to enshrine a future role for themselves with considerable independence from civilian leaders and possibly an authority to intervene in politics.

No doubt the military would have anticipated negative reactions. In their colleges they pour over the uncertainties of involvement in internal politics, always fearing the threat to national security balanced against democratic wishes.

They dread being sucked into a quagmire, particularly if the predictable opposition of student masses spreads through the trade unions and into the factories. Or the creation of urban militants such as the Irish Republican Army, which in one form or another has plagued the United Kingdom for 50 years and more.

Such was the case in Brazil, which was slipping towards communist rule in 1964. After 15 days searching for a democratic leader to their taste, the Brazilian Army Chief of Staff, Marshal Castelo Branco assumed the presidency saying he would rout out corruption, reform politics and revitalize the economy.

Authoritarian regimes continued for 21 years. They were supported by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and multinational companies, which viewed the Brazilian right-wing military dictatorship as a new, economically stable Western ally against international Communism. The economy slipped back.

SCAF is reserving for itself wide powers to influence Egypt’s post-election period. SCAF says it will put together guidelines for the new constitution. Their legal consultant Hisham El-Bastawisi says the military’s future role should guarantee supra-national principals – powers to intervene to protect basic human rights.

The problem is the military’s definition of human rights.

Bastawisi says the military should be immune from parliament scrutinizing its budget and passing laws affecting the military without the generals’ approval.

Why? Whose money is it? Theirs or the people’s?

The two times French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, described the problem: War is too important to be left to the generals. Or, as Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart the British military historian and advisor during World War II described the military’s role: The art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.

The question at this time surrounds SCAF’s assumption of policy-making powers. It’s a fine balance. On the one hand it can be fairly argued that SCAF is the only body empowered to guide the nation in the absence of a democratically elected president and parliament. On the other hand, SCAF should not set irrevocable red lines.

In1521 Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance political philosopher and historian addressed the issue. In his Dell’arte della Guerra (The Art of War) Machiavelli wrote that all society, religion, science, and art rested on the security provided by the military. He believed war was an extension of politics.

Egypt’s war is an ideological firmament. The left is challenging the right; youth asserts more liberal ideals than their parents. The different attitudes of Christians, Atheists and Islamists are blurred by distinctions among each denomination.

This is what democracy is about. SCAF has opened the doors to a debate that has been overdue for decades. The argument must include the military’s power within the country.

Expect the debate to be more raucous. So long as it remains a verbal clash, who should complain? Maybe they’ll get to the nub of the issue: the divergence between Europe, America and the Middle East during the Age of Enlightenment.

When the forces of reason fought the forces of ignorance in the 18th Century, when Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire challenged people to have the courage to reason, Islamists declined to join in the debate. They were deeply suspicious, rightly so, of European colonialism, Euro-centrism and European guns.

The West and the Middle East have been cagey, cautious confederates ever since. Ironically the Arab technocrats in Egypt educated their elites abroad. They used the reasoning skills they learned to asphyxiate the masses.

Now the Middle East’s youth have challenged the status quo – a historic dare. They face the strangulating suture of arrogant oligarchs.

One of history’s moments recalls Sir Anthony Eden calling back Henry Liddell Hart after Hart had submitted his fifth plan to address what Britain calls the Suez Crisis in 1956.

According to the British historian Leonard Mosley the British prime minister liked this plan. Eden said: Captain Liddell Hart, here I am at a critical moment in Britain’s history, arranging matters, which might mean the life of the British Empire. And what happens? I ask you to do a simple military chore for me and it takes you five attempts – plus my vigilance amid all my worries – before you get it right.

Hart replied: But sir, it hasn’t taken five attempts. That version, which you now say is just what you wanted, is the original version.

There was silence. The prime minister’s face reddened. Then he reached for an antique inkstand and threw it at Hart. Hart sat still for a moment and then, with a tactician’s instinct for the devastating counterstrike, stood up, seized a wastepaper basket, and jammed it over Eden’s head.

Egypt’s contrariety should be restricted to such pranks.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.

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