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Egyptian protesters increasingly disillusioned with army

The Egyptian military is learning a dangerous political truth: A revolution unfinished turns bitter and its heroes can be quickly recast as villains.

Soldiers were swooned over two months ago when they rolled into Cairo's Tahrir Square and stood guard over protesters rallying to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. But the allure of the long-revered military has faded as the generals running the country face accusations that they are threatening the dreams of a new democracy by cracking down on dissent and failing to bring former government officials to justice.

The so-called Arab Spring has settled into a blur of troubling developments in Egypt. Army doctors forcing detained female protesters to take virginity tests. Labor strikes and sit-ins banned. Dozens of demonstrators missing. A protester dead and 71 injured during an army raid Saturday. Mubarak unpunished and unrepentant while under house arrest in a Red Sea resort. And on Monday, a blogger sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing generals.

"They're playing a dirty game," said Mohamed Abbas, an activist and youth movement leader. "It's our revolution. Yes, the military helped us achieve it. But it's ours and that spirit is coming back. The period of truce between us and the army is over."

The deadly raid Saturday to disperse demonstrators in Tahrir Square was the most pointed indication yet of deepening distrust between the military and the public. The army called protesters agitators. Demonstrators hung in effigy Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, and chanted that he was no better than Mubarak, a former air force commander.

"We've given the army time, but they haven't fulfilled our wishes," said Essam Refaat, sitting, sweaty-faced, with a rolled flag at the edge of a protest in the square last week. "We need to pressure the military to get rid of the remnants of the old regime so there can be no counterrevolution. We don't want the generals ruling from behind anymore."

The military is also encountering pressure from current and former junior officers who have joined the protests and posted YouTube videos accusing the army of protecting former government officials and abandoning the ideals of the revolution. Progressive officers have criticized the 75-year-old Tantawi and the old guard as too inflexible to meet the demands of a changing Middle East.

"The military is concerned and worried about officers dissenting from within," said Ammar Ali Hassan, an analyst and former military officer. "Any divisions from within the military establishment might result in a military coup that would sweep away the legitimacy of our civilian revolution."

Yet, for many Egyptians, the military remains the country's most hallowed institution. It has been the protector of national pride and a counterbalance to Mubarak's reviled police state. It was strong when the civil state faltered. During a bread shortage in 2008, military bakeries supplied millions of loaves to a worried public. And in recent weeks it has taken steps toward democracy, even as it clings to its traditionally authoritarian nature.

Since Mubarak left office after more than three decades, the army has set parliamentary elections, arrested members of the former Cabinet, removed a number of state governors and summoned Mubarak and his sons for questioning over corruption allegations and other charges. The generals have also struggled to revive an economy that lost billions of dollars from tourism and other businesses hurt by the weeks of upheaval early this year.

"We call on all the revolution's conscious youth to cooperate with us and with the silent majority of Egyptians," said Gen. Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling council. "We stress that we guarantee fulfilling all the revolution's legitimate demands. We won't deceive you. We won't fool you and you won't one day regret that the military forces stood by your side."

Overall, said analyst Hassan, "the military council has made a number of good achievements since taking power."

But thousands of demonstrators are no longer convinced. Since the revolution began Jan. 25, about 4,000 protesters have been arrested. About 1,500 of those have been sentenced from six months to five years in prison on charges including spreading false information and assaulting soldiers and police. Fifty-five protesters remain missing and human rights groups have accused the military of torture and illegal detentions.

Among the most troubling cases was the three-year prison sentence given Monday to blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad for insulting the military. The army has long been sensitive about its image and draconian about rebutting criticism. The independent news media were allowed a certain leeway in skewering Mubarak's presidency. But the generals tolerated no caricature or analysis; even today, with seemingly more media freedom, most journalist and writers do not scrutinize the army.

"In truth, until now the revolution was achieved by getting rid of the dictator [Mubarak], but dictatorship is still present," wrote Nabil, who was arrested March 28. "I will set out in this post signs and the evidence which prove that throughout the revolution the army were not once on the people's side and that the army's conduct was deceitful all along and it was protecting interests."

Such cases indicate the military's stature could further deteriorate. The revolution has dramatically changed the nation's political dynamics by giving voice and confidence to a population that for decades lived in fear. The army is in jeopardy of facing unrest amid high poverty, limited opportunity and fears by many that Mubarak and his inner circle will escape justice.

At the same time, the public's emboldened sense of entitlement has irritated an institution that prefers the scrim of secrecy to the echoes of daily protests or listening to the aspirations of organizations ranging from the conservative Muslim Brotherhood to secular leftists.

Further crackdowns could occur as generals seek to protect an array of their interests, including a vast business network of olive oil, construction and other firms run by current and former officers. There is also concern that a new civilian government would diminish the military's power.

Men with gold stars and epaulets have held sway in Egypt since 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and other young officers instigated a military coup. All of Egypt's presidents since then — Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak — have come from the military. That legacy is likely to end in the upcoming presidential election and could drastically alter the politics in one of the U.S. government's closest Middle East allies.

The attitudes of prospective recruits have shifted too. The passions of provincial young men seeking success in a uniform have dimmed. A U.S. diplomatic cable says that "a military career is no longer an attractive option for ambitious young people who aspire" instead to join the new business elite.

The 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, recently made public by WikiLeaks, describes an Egyptian military of a "disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister [Tantawi] they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates."

Tantawi has become "increasingly intolerant of intellectual freedom," says another cable quoting an embassy contact. "Tantawi has made it clear that the military … will not tolerate independent thought within" its ranks.

"We're trying to understand that the military is in a tough situation since the revolution, but there is no justification for torture or military trials," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "They have the power, weapons and tribunals. We feel we have no rights and we're worried about where it's heading."

What is unfolding in Cairo and across Egypt is an atmosphere of brinkmanship between protesters and the military. Both are in uncharted terrain. The protesters push. The army appears to ignore. A provocative incident flares, such as Saturday's slaying of a demonstrator. A day or two later, the army announces a concession, as it did Sunday when news spread that Mubarak would be questioned by the attorney general.

Both sides, at times, have angered the larger public — the military for not moving more swiftly to install an elected government and the protesters for pressing too many demands and clogging up Cairo's central square.

"We learned from the revolution that there will be no achievements without pressure," said activist Abbas. "A half a revolution is digging your own grave."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan in The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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