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One year ago, just before Egypt’s President Mubarak was toppled, protesters called the military to their side: The side of history. Hundreds of thousands chanted, “The army. The people. One hand.” The army was seen, then, as heroic. But now many fear the mighty Egyptian military with its vast economic resources will not relinquish power — that it has betrayed the revolution.

Girl in blue bra Egypt
An Egyptian protester holds a modified version of the widely seen image of Egyptian troops beating a veiled woman after having ripped her clothes off to reveal her bra and stomach during recent clashes, at a demonstration against the military rule in Cairo's Tahrir Square on December 22, 2011. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

The 'black box' of Egyptian military power

Secrecy and violence as SCAF holds tight to the country and its economy.

CAIRO – The young Egyptian woman wore a traditional headscarf and shawl, known as an “abaya,” and stood off to the side of the protests before she was knocked down by Egyptian military police. Then she was beaten with batons, stripped to her bra, dragged through the street and stomped by one soldier.

The image has become iconic in Egypt’s continuing revolution.

Captured on video December 17 and broadcast around the world, the attack on this anonymous woman, known simply as “the girl in the blue bra,” has enraged young Egyptian protesters on the streets, offended old-guard loyalists to the regime and galvanized the international human rights community. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “shocking.”

For many Egyptians, the image of a woman in modest Islamic dress being attacked by soldiers in riot gear has come to embody a U.S.-backed military that is suddenly and violently reacting to unprecedented challenges to its 60-year grip on power. Critics say the military is panicking as an emerging civilian democracy poses a threat not just to its power, but to the military hierarchy’s vast economic holdings.

Looked upon as heroic by many Egyptians for standing by the so-called ‘January 25 Revolution’ and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak one year ago, the legendary Egyptian military suddenly seems out of control.

“Egypt’s military is becoming the enemy of our revolution.”
~Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

It is a perception that was confirmed for many observers last week when the military raided the offices of Western non-governmental organizations in a xenophobic campaign to crack down on what the ruling military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), repeatedly refers to as the “hidden hands” behind the pro-democracy movement. It is a bizarre accusation given the fact that the Egyptian military itself receives $1.3 billion in annual military assistance from the United States.

So why do so many observers here and abroad feel the Egyptian military has suddenly become, as one diplomat in Cairo put it, “unhinged?”

Human rights activists, leaders of the opposition movement and even old-guard political and military analysts interviewed by GlobalPost say it is because the ongoing elections are giving shape to a parliament that is intent on bringing the military under the control of civilian government.

Newly elected parliamentarians and candidates in the upcoming elections – from the powerful party of the Muslim Brotherhood to the smaller, more secular factions that grew out of the protest movement – are for first time in six decades insisting that there must be closer scrutiny of the military’s enormous but secretive budget.

These leaders of the pro-democracy movement, such as Amr Hamzawy, an outspoken political analyst and a member of the country’s secular elite who recently won a seat in the new parliament, say it is time to unravel the vast economic power the military wields and, as Hamzawy says, “make it more accountable.”

'We all lost in this'

In November, just days before the first of a three-phase vote for the lower house of parliament in the first elections since the fall of Mubarak, the military shocked voters by trying to push through constitutional provisions that would have made the military unaccountable to civilian government.

One specific proposal would have shielded the military’s secretive budget and its economic interests from parliamentary scrutiny.

That triggered the protest movement, with the full weight of the Muslim Brotherhood behind it, to hold a massive rally in Tahrir Square on November 19. And that’s when the military showed it was willing to exert all of its force to protect its interests. In what is widely viewed as an excessive use of force, the military killed 40 people in six days of clashes around the country.

Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said, “We always knew that the military has stakes to protect, that they will not happily espouse the proposal of moving from 100 percent of power in 60 years to zero. We knew they’d want to protect veto power over national security decisions, protect their military budget, funding from the US… But we never expected them to engage in this bloodshed.”

In the human rights organization’s Cairo