One week ago, Egypt was a stable authoritarian regime, prospects of change were minimal and every expert in Washington would have betted on the endurance of its regime. Today, Egypt is in a state of chaos. The regime, even after using its mightiest sword is not able to control the country and the streets of Egypt are in a state of utter lawlessness. As the world stands in awe, confusion, and worry at the unfolding events, perhaps it is important to write the evolving story that is happening in Egypt before any reflections can be made on them.
Contrary to pundits, it turns out that the Egyptian regime was neither stable nor secure. The lack of its stability is not a reflection of its weakness or lack of a resolve to oppress. It is a reflection of its inherent contradiction to the natural desire of men to enjoy their basic freedoms. Egyptians might not know what democracy actually means, but that does not make the concept any less desirable. Perhaps it is precisely its vagueness and abstraction that makes the concept all the more desirable.
For two weeks calls were made using new social media tools for a mass demonstration on the 25th of January. Observers dismissed those calls as another virtual activism that would not result in anything. Other calls in the past had resulted in very small public support and the demonstrations were limited to the familiar faces of political activists numbering in the hundreds. As the day progressed, the observers seemed to be correct in their skepticism. While the demonstrations were certainly larger than previous ones, numbering perhaps 15,000 in Cairo, they were nothing worrisome for the regime. They were certainly much smaller than the ones in 2003 against the Iraq War. The police force was largely tolerating and when they decided to empty Tahrir Square, where the demonstrators had camped for the night, it took them less than 5 minutes to do so.
But beneath that, things were very different. The social media tools had given people something that they had lacked previously, an independent means of communication and propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians in a matter of minutes were seeing the demonstration videos being uploaded on YouTube. For an apolitical generation that had never shown interest in such events the demonstration was unprecedented. More remarkable they were tremendously exaggerated. At a moment when no more than 500 demonstrators had started gathering in that early morning, an Egyptian opposition leader could confidently tweet that he was leading 100,000 in Tahrir Square. And it stuck.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that after 58 years of organized state propaganda, people would not believe for a second the government’s media machine and its coverage of the events. Why they chose to believe the alternative propaganda needs more explaining. People believed the twitter messages and the facebook postings because they wanted to believe them. Tunisia had broken the barrier for many people. It mattered not that the situation and ruling formula in Tunisia is very different than the one in Egypt. Perceptions were more important than reality. If the Tunisians could do it, then so could we. With 15,000 demonstrating in Cairo, Egyptians were already texting each other with stories of the President’s son escape. The only debate being whether Hosni Mubarak would escape to London or Saudi Arabia.
The next day the demonstrations continued with a promise of a return on Friday the 28th after Friday Prayers in Mosques. The regime started panicking at this moment. This was simply something they did not understand. Imagine for a second Mubarak’s advisors trying to explain to the 83 year old dictator what twitter is in the first place. What was more worrying for them was that the only real force in Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood announced its intention of joining the demonstrations. Suddenly they were faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from every Mosque in the country. They acted as every panicking authoritarian regime would act. They acted stupidly.
The internet was cut off in Egypt. Mobile phone companies were ordered to suspend services. With tools of communication disrupted the regime was hopeful that they had things under control. Simultaneously they started standard arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Things seemed for them under control. But they weren’t. With every stupid panicking move by the regime, the narrative of its weakness was only reinforced for the people. People saw a regime that was scarred of the internet and they rightfully calculated that this was their golden opportunity.
Friday was an unprecedented event in Egypt. While it is impossible to guess the number of protestors on the streets that day, it is safe to say that they exceeded one million. Every Mosque was a launching site for a demonstration. The Islamists were out in full force. The slogans that day were quite different than the previous ones. Islamic slogans and activists were clearly visible. The security forces were faced with wave after wave of protestors that came from every street. In 4 hours, the security forces were collapsing.
Whether Mubarak was fully previously told about the deteriorating situation for the previous days or whether it was at this moment that he suddenly realized the gravity of the situation remains unknown. One thing is sure; the regime was not prepared for this. It is at this moment that the decision was taken to call in the army, announce a curfew, and withdraw the security forces. In reality the army did not deploy immediately. The troops and tanks that appeared in the streets were the Presidential Guard units deployed in Cairo.
The army was actually still far away from deploying in Cairo. Because no one had imagined that the situation would totally be out of control, the level of alert of the army was never raised. Officers were not called from their vacations and the whole top command of the Egyptian army was actually thousands of miles away in Washington for strategic prearranged discussions at the Pentagon. Moreover, the plan of deployment of the army never imagined a scenario where people would defy it. No one imagined that the army would be required to put a tank in every street. They thought that the mere mention of the army being called in, the sight of a few tanks, and the announcement of the curfew, would make people immediately go home scared. People did not.
The Egyptian army is hugely popular. This is due to the established mythology of Egyptian politics. The army, which is in all aspects the regime, is seen as separate by the people. The army is viewed as clean (not like the corrupt government), efficient (they do build bridges fast), and more importantly the heroes that defeated Israel in 1973 (it is no use to debate that point with an Egyptian). With the troops and tanks appearing in the streets, people actually thought the army was on their side, whatever that might mean. With an announced Presidential addressed that kept being delayed; Egyptians prepared themselves for an announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.
Mubarak was at a loss. The troops could not possibly shoot people. That would not only destroy the army’s reputation, but more importantly the troops practically could not do it. These guys after all were not trained for this. They do not have rubber bullets or tear gas. They only have live ammunition and tanks and the thought of actually using them in this situation was never an option. To the surprise of the regime, people just celebrated the army’s arrival and started dancing in the streets defying the curfew. More importantly something else was happening as well. The looting was starting.
The decision to withdraw the security forces was a natural decision. First they were utterly exhausted and needed the rest to regroup. Secondly, as the security forces had become the symbol of the regime’s oppression their withdrawal was seen as necessary to calm things. Thirdly and most importantly, in the protocol of operations there could not possibly be two forces with arms in the same street receiving orders from two different structures of command. Even with the best of coordination, a disaster is bound to happen.
What was not calculated however is the fact that suddenly a vacuum was created. The security forces were withdrawn and the army was not deployed yet. In this gap an opportunity presented itself for everyone. The scenes were unbelievable. First there was massive anger vented at symbols of state oppression such as the ruling party’s headquarters. More drastically in what can only be described as systematic targeting, police stations everywhere were attacked. Every police station in Cairo was looted, the weapons in them stolen and then burned. At the same time, massive looting was taking place. Even the Egyptian Museum, which hosts some of the world’s greatest heritage, was not spared.
Saturday was indescribable. Nothing that I write can describe the utter state of lawlessness that prevailed. Every Egyptian prison was attacked by organized groups trying to free the prisoners inside. In the case of the prisons holding regular criminals this was done by their families and friends. In the case of the prisons with the political prisoners this was done by the Islamists. Bulldozers were used in those attacks and the weapons available from the looting of police stations were available. Nearly all the prisons fell. The prison forces simply could not deal with such an onslaught and no reinforcements were available. Nearly every terrorist held in the Egyptian prisons from those that bombed the Alexandria Church less than a month ago to the Murderer of Anwar El Sadat was freed, the later reportedly being arrested again tonight.
On the streets of Cairo it was the scene of a jungle. With no law enforcement in town and the army at a loss at how to deal with it, it was the golden opportunity for everyone. In a city that is surrounded with slums, thousands of thieves fell on their neighboring richer districts. People were robbed in broad daylight, houses were invaded, and stores looted and burned. Egypt had suddenly fallen back to the State of Nature. Panicking, people started grabbing whatever weapon they could find and forming groups to protect their houses. As the day progressed the street defense committees became more organized. Every building had its men standing in front of it with everything they could find from personal guns, knives to sticks. Women started preparing Molotov bombs using alcohol bottles. Street committees started coordinating themselves. Every major crossroad had now groups of citizens stopping all passing cars checking their ID cards and searching the cars for weapons. Machine guns were in high demand and were sold in the streets.
I do not aim to turn this into a personal story, but those people are my friends and family. It is a personal story to me. My neighbors were all stationed in my father-in-law’s house with men on the roof to lookout for possible attackers. A friend of mine was shot at by a gang of thieves and another actually killed one of them to defend his house and wife. Another friend’s brother arrested 37 thieves that day. The army’s only role in all of this was to pass by each area to pick up the arrested thieves. Army officers informed the street committees that anyone with an illegal weapon should not worry and should use it. Any death of one of the thieves would not be punished.
On the political front the story was evolving. More troops were pouring into Cairo. Mubarak decided to appoint Omar Suliman as Vice President and Ahmed Shafik as Prime Minister. Both are military men, Suliman being the Chief of the Egyptian Intelligence Service and Shafik being the former commander of the Air Forces. To understand the moves one has to understand the nature of the ruling coalition in Egypt and the role of the army in it.
The Egyptian regime has been based since 1952 on a coalition between the army and the bureaucrats. In this regard it fits perfectly into O’Donnell’s Bureaucratic Authoritarian model. The army is fully in control of both actual power and the economy. Ex-army officers are appointed to run state enterprises and high-level administrative positions. More importantly the army has an enormous economic arm that runs enterprises as diverse as construction companies and food distribution chains. In the late 90’s this picture began to change.
It is no news for anyone following Egyptian politics that Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son was being groomed to follow his father. In reality, the elder Mubarak was never fully behind that scenario. Whether it was a real assessment of his son’s capabilities or of the acceptance of the army to such a scenario, Mubarak was hesitant. It was his wife who was heavily pushing that scenario. Gamal, step-by-step started rising inside the ruling NDP party. With him he brought two groups to the ruling coalition. First were the Western educated economic technocrats trained in international financial institutions they shared what is generally described as neo-liberal economic policies labeled the Washington Consensus. Secondly was the growing business community that was emerging in Egypt. Together they started the process of both restructuring the Egyptian economy and the ruling party.
For the technocrats it was the fiscal and economic policy that was their domain and they performed miracles. The Egyptian economy under the Nazif government showed unprecedented growth. The currency was devalued, investment was pouring in, and exports were growing. Even the economic crisis did not dramatically affect Egypt. The real disaster in all of this however is that no one actually rationalized or defended those policies to the Egyptian public. The country was moving towards a full capitalist system but no explained why that was needed or why it was ultimately beneficial. While such restructuring is naturally painful for a population that was dependent on the government for all its needs, the people were fed the same socialist rhetoric nonetheless. It mattered very little that the country was improving economically, people did not see that. It is not that the effects were not trickling down, they were. It is that the people were used to the nanny state for so many years that they could not understand why the government was no longer providing them with those services.
Businessmen greatly benefited from the economic improvement. Business was good and political aspirations started to emerge for them. First it was a Parliament seat that they desired. It offered immunity from prosecution after all. With Gamal however, they suddenly had a higher opportunity. Gamal wanted to recreate the ruling NDP party. The NDP, never actually a real party and more of a mass valueless organization of state operation was suddenly turning into a real party. Businessmen like Ahmed Ezz, the steel tycoon saw a golden opportunity. They took full control with Gamal of the party and with it power.
The army never liked Gamal or his friends. Gamal had never served in the military. To add insult to injury his friends were threatening the dominance of the army. The technocrat’s neo-liberal policies were threatening the army’s dominance of the closed economy and the party was becoming step by step an actual organization that competes with the army officers in filling administrative positions. Suddenly the doors to power in Egypt were not a military career but a party ID card. As long as the President was there however, the army was silent. The army is 100% loyal to the President. He is an October War hero and their Commander in Chief. He is seen as an Egyptian patriot by them who has served his country well. Moreover Gamal Abdel Nasser having conducted his own military coup in 1952 put mechanisms in the army to ensure that no one else would do the same and remove him.
With the unfolding events the army was finally able to put its narrative to the President and have his support behind it. The army’s narrative is that Gamal and his friends ruined it. Their neo-liberal policies alienated people and angered them with talks of subsidies removal, while his party gang destroyed the political system by aiming to crush all opposition. Mubarak in the past had mastered the art of playing the opposition. The opposition was always co-opted. Sizes in Parliament differed in various elections, but there was always a place there for the opposition. The last elections in 2010 were different. No opposition was allowed to win seats. By closing the legitimate political methods of raising grievances, the opposition chose the illegitimate ones in the form of street demonstrations.
Today the Egyptians are scared. They have been given a glimpse of hell and they don’t like what they see. Contrary to Al Jazeera’s propaganda, the Egyptian masses are not demonstrating anymore. They are protecting their homes and families. The demonstration last night had 5,000 political activists participating and not 150,000 as Al Jazeera insists. At this moment, no one outside of those political activists cares less now if the President will resign or not. They have more important concerns now; security and food.
So where are we today? Well the answer is still not clear, yet a couple of conclusions are evident.
1. The Gamal inheritance scenario is finished.
2. Mubarak will not run for another Presidential term. His term ends in October and either he will serve the rest of his term or will resign once things cool down for health reasons, which are real. He is dying.
3. The army is in control now. We are heading back to the “golden age” of army rule. The “kids” are no longer in charge. The “men” are.
4. Until the economy fails again, the neo-liberal economic policies are over. Forget about an open economy for some time.
Immediately the task of the army is to stabilize the situation and enforce order. The security forces have been ordered to reappear in the streets starting tonight. The next task will be to deal with the political activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which now dominates the scene. It is anyone’s guess how that will be done, but in a couple of days the Egyptians will probably be begging the army to shoot them. Third stage will be to return to normal life again with people going back to their jobs and somehow food being made available. Later on however will come the political questions.
The long-term challenges are numerous. First you have a huge economic loss in terms of property destroyed. The minute the banks will be reopened, there will be a run on them and capital flight will be the key word in town. It is of course quite natural that for some time no one in his sensible mind will invest in Egypt.
Politically, the army will aim at returning to the pre-Gamal ruling formula. People will be appeased by raising salaries and increasing subsidies with the hope of silencing them. Will it be enough? That is doubtful. The Egyptians have realized for the first time that the regime is not as strong as it looked a week ago. If the army did not stop them, how will they ever be silenced? Moreover they are greatly empowered. Egyptians today feel pride in themselves. They have protected their neighborhoods and done what the army has failed to do. This empowerment will not be crushed easily.
Security wise, the situation is a disaster. It might take months to arrest all those criminals again. Moreover no one has a clue how the weapons that were stolen will ever be collected again or how the security will ever regain its necessary respect to restore public order after it was defeated in 4 hours. More importantly, reports indicate that the borders in Gaza were open for the past few days. What exactly was transferred between Gaza and Egypt is anyone’s guess.
You seem to wonder after all of this where El Baradei and the Egyptian opposition are. CNN’s anointed leader of the Egyptian Revolution must be important to the future of Egypt. Hardly! Outside of Western media hype, El Baradei is nothing. A man that has spent less than 30 days in the past year in Egypt and hardly any time in the past 20 years is a nobody. It is entirely insulting to Egyptians to suggest otherwise. The opposition you wonder? Outside of the Muslim Brotherhood we are discussing groups that can each claim less than 5,000 actual members. With no organization, no ideas, and no leaders they are entirely irrelevant to the discussion. It is the apolitical young generation that has suddenly been transformed that is the real question here.
Where Egypt will go from here is an enigma. In a sense everything will be the same. The army that has ruled Egypt since 1952 will continue to rule it and the country will still suffer from a huge vacuum of ideas and real political alternatives. On the other hand, it will never be the same again. Once empowered, the Egyptians will not accept the status quo for long.
On the long run the Egyptian question remains the same. Nothing has changed in that regard. It is quite remarkable for people to be talking about the prospect for a democratic transition at this moment. A population that was convinced just two months ago that sharks in the Red Sea were implanted by the Israeli Intelligence Services is hardly at a stage of creating a liberal democracy in Egypt. But the status quo cannot be maintained. A lack of any meaningful political discourse in the country has to be addressed. Until someone actually starts addressing the real issues and stop the chatterbox of clichés on democracy, things will not get better at all. It will only get worse.