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From Latin America, 'Macho' Leadership Lessons For Post-Arab Spring Egypt

Analysis: An Egyptian scholar delves into the recent history of Latin America, where countries found the tough leaders necessary to move away from military juntas. With the way Egypt is limping toward its first presidential election, such a scenario looks

Dilma Rousseff, from prisoner to president (Wikipedia)
Dilma Rousseff, from prisoner to president (Wikipedia)
Zeinab Abul Magd*

CAIRO - With a stroke of a pen, the Presidential Elections Commission managed to disappoint and deeply frustrate so many Egyptians.

For after the revolution, there has been an increasing demand in the street for a "macho" president, one who can get a firm grip on the country. But the commission excluded all macho candidates from the race and kept only the wimps. This was certainly good news for the military junta, who got rid of frightening characters like Omar Suleiman, Khairat al-Shater and the extremist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, leaving only weak candidates who could be easily dealt with.

I have just returned from a trip to Brazil, where I attended a workshop on relations between civilians and the military in Latin American countries, which 40 years ago resembled Egypt's situation today.

Back then, they had military regimes that suppressed the opposition and dominated all economic resources. But they succeeded in getting rid of those regimes and brought themselves some macho presidents.

First, I will tell you about how the people of Latin America elected their civilian leaders, and how those legendary presidents pushed the military back to their barracks and punished them for their crimes. Then, I will talk about the crisis of an absence of a macho presidential candidate in Egypt.

In general, military rule kills all its opponents, does not mind destruction in order to maintain its existence and does not care much for the poor or those who sympathize with them.

The military rule in Latin America rose with the help of the United States during the Cold War. At the time, the United States did not want the people there to elect governments that would call for social justice and equity for farmers, or try to undermine the capitalist influence of American companies.

Argentina and Brazil

Argentina was a severe and intractable case of military rule that came to power in 1976 and lasted for 13 years, creating an armed resistance that decided to fight violence with violence.

Thousands of opponents, or rather state enemies, as the junta preferred to call them, either disappeared, were tortured or killed. Among them were students, journalists, workers, university professors or anyone who was considered a leftist for defending the poor.

The army used to raid the cities, kidnap the opposition groups, take them in helicopters and drop them in the river that separates Argentina from Uruguay. The junta systematically suppressed the Argentine workers of American and European automobile factories, such as Ford, Peugeot, Fiat and Mercedes to please the owners of those factories.

The economy collapsed, and in order to distract the attention of the public from the bloodshed and the suffering, the junta waged war on Britain over a disputed piece of land, expecting the United States to stand by them, but it stood by the British, and the military rulers lost both the war and their credibility.

Finally, they had to leave and let the people elect their first civilian president, Raul Alfonsín, in 1983. He was strong from the very beginning, making the punishment of the army for its crimes a central part of his election platform and restoring the rights of the victims immediately after assuming office.

He prosecuted nine leading military figures for violating human rights, and sentenced two junta presidents to life in prison. He also cut the military budget drastically, restructured the military establishment and put it entirety under civilian control.

Yet he pardoned the low-ranking officers, who were only carrying out orders, as they threatened to revolt against the civil state, and ordered compensation for the families of all those who disappeared during the military rule. He thereby maintained the stability of the state.

Brazil has a slightly different story. The army came to power with a coup against an elected leftist president in 1964 and stayed for 20 years. But the junta of Brazil was not as violent or bloody as that of Argentina. Only a few hundred disappeared from the opposition, or were killed during military rule. That is why neither the first elected civilian president nor the people cared to punish them harshly.

Can you imagine a woman taking over in Egypt? That's what's happened in Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff, who had taken part in the guerrilla war against Brazil's military regime, and was arrested and tortured, is now leading the country's rise from poverty to an advanced industrial nation that paid back all its debts to the International Monetary Fund.

Here and now

Today, the role of the Brazilian army is to secure football matches and help the police stop crime. It also runs certain specialized educational institutions, such as the Institute of Aviation Technology, and helps in building roads and bridges and with health projects.

Now let us go back to Egypt. After the exclusions of the Presidential Elections Commission, we have no candidate we might consider macho. No one can face down the military. No one is qualified or has regional and international financial contacts like Shater; nor has influence within the state security institutions and foreign relations like Suleiman. nor can claim hundreds of thousands of followers willing to die for him like Abu Ismail.

From the junta's viewpoint, the remaining candidates conveniently lack the power at home and abroad to threaten the military's privileges.

And now that the elections are no longer "exciting," turnout is expected to be low. The winner will have taken the majority votes of those who bothered to go to the ballots, not necessarily the majority votes of the Egyptian people.

If the elections do take place at all, the junta will congratulate the winner, whoever he is, and go straight back to business as usual.

*Zeinab Abul Magd is a historian. She teaches at the American University in Cairo.

Read the full article in Al-Masry Al-Youm

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