Don Davis

On Egypt: The Crisis Is Here

Filed By Don Davis | January 28, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Egypt, human rights abuses, International Relations, Middle East, politics

It has been a couple of years since I first started writing about Egypt; at that time I did a 0dbc9_gamal-mubarak.jpgseries of stories that described how the country's Constitution is designed to ensure that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) remains the ruling party, how corruption and torture and rape are part of the justice system, how there's a looming Presidential succession crisis, and how we better pay attention, because one day all of this was going to blow up into a national emergency, with the potential for disastrous consequences that ripple all the way from Turkey to Morocco to Pakistan. And now that day has arrived. After protests that led to a change of government (sort of) in Tunisia, rioting is spreading across Egypt, quickly, the ISI (Egypt's internal security police) is out grabbing citizens and doing what they do, and the question of Presidential succession, which many people thought was headed in one direction, may now be headed off to a place that outside observers might not have previously considered. Lucky for you, I have some reach inside Egypt, and we're going to get a peek inside the story that you might not have seen otherwise.
"My grandfather knew the exact time of the exact day of the exact year that he would die." "Wow, what an evolved soul! How did it come to him?" "The judge told him." --From "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar...", Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
Time is short, and this story is moving fast, so here's the short and sweet version of the background that you "need to know": since the Republic of Egypt was founded in 1956, only the NDP has held power. Hosni Mubarak, the fourth and current President, has ruled since 1981, when he took over after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He's thinking about succession plans more and more these days (for the NDP, government corruption is a business, and everyone with a hand in the till wants the business to keep running smoothly), and if he had his wish his son, Gamal, would step into the job. It looks like Gamal is trying to do just that: he makes public appearances where he looks Presidential, and it is reported by our State Department that he is involved in the formulation of legislation and government policy. Because the Egyptian Constitution's famous Article 76 is designed to ensure that the NDP retains its stranglehold on power, there is no single opposition figure outside the NDP who commands enough public support and party infrastructure to really mount an electoral challenge. (Ensure, you say? The Constitution's intent is to "protect national unity"; to that end it requires all political parties to be licensed by the government... which, of course, is run by the NDP. Political parties are barred from forming coalitions amongst themselves, and all candidates for Parliament or President must be approved by the Government before they can appear on the ballot. Should the authorities choose, that permission can be withdrawn during an election campaign. A party can be ordered to disband. The government can also, at any time, order parties not to accept any funds from any sources.) The last candidate allowed to run against Mubarak in any serious way was Ayman Nour, of the El Ghad Party, in 2005; for his trouble he first received about 8% of the vote in a rigged Egyptian election and then, soon after, a nice long sentence in a heavily guarded Egyptian prison. (He's since been released.) The ISI, acting in their capacity as one of the guardians of State Security, is recognized worldwide for its willingness to go "above and beyond" to make sure Egyptians stay unified in their support of the NDP; their motivational tactics have included everything from attempting to take over an opposition party to organizing a well-timed riot to raping bloggers the government doesn't like all the way up to "disappearing" and killing those who get too far out of line. (The USA has "leveraged" Egypt's expertise in torture throughout the "War on Terror," and the place has been a popular destination for those being "renditioned.") Here's an example: The Guardian has an amazing audio recording on their website that was made by one of their reporters who was grabbed by riot police in Cairo during a street demonstration in the past day or so (along with about 50 others) and driven around in a police truck for several hours. The idea was to slam them into each other and the metal walls of the truck so as to "tenderize" them a bit, they were then driven out into the desert, presumably with the intent of making them think they were about to be killed. Among those thrown in the truck was Ayman Nour's son, which adds another dimension to how the intimidation can work, doesn't it? Egypt is officially a secular nation, but many Egyptians would like to see an Islamic Republic; their interests were represented by the Muslim Brotherhood until the Party was officially banned. Today there is an underground alliance of politicians, some of whom serve in Parliament, that represent the same interests. This scares the NDP to no end. Other noteworthy religious sects within the population include Sufis, Copts, and Orthodox Christians, and there have been tensions between the various groups that have recently led to numerous incidents of violence. Poverty, unemployment, concerns over the potential withdrawal of certain government subsidies, and issues related to food security have also rocked the country over the past few years. The army has always served (as is the case in Turkey) as a guardian of secular interests and as a guarantor of "stability." All of the Republic's Presidents have served in the Army, and Gamal Mubarak, if he were to advance to the Presidency, would be the first to break that rule. The other thing you need to know is that Tunisia, which is not far from Egypt, is going through the exact same thing: they have also had one-party rule forever and popular discontent with government corruption, combined with an unemployment rate that makes Detroit look like a city "on the... grow!," has led to so much rioting and changing of governments that the country actually had three heads of state in 24 hours. Of course, when you've always had one-party rule and any political opposition is aggressively stamped out, that means any change in government is likely to be a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" kind of a deal. That's precisely what's happening in Tunisia. (If you want to explore the Egyptian parts of this story in a lot more detail, have a look here, here, here, and here.) History lesson done, it's time to consider the present: just like in Tunisia, the rioting has begun. There are reports of demonstrations involving thousands of protesters in Cairo, Alexandria, and in the Suez; among those reports are details that include the burning and blockading of police stations, mass detainments, and the firing of live bullets and rocket propelled grenades on the crowds. There are also reports of numerous deaths among the demonstrators. There are reports that "Muslims and Christians together" are out demonstrating against the government in Cairo, and it's Bedouins who are protesting out in the Sinai. All of this is much different than the typical protests that have occurred in the past, which seem to have been of a more secular nature. Prisoners at the Fayoum Prison (many of whom are there without trial or charges filed; many of whom have been tortured) are engaging in hunger strikes and security officials are concerned that the strikes could spread across all the country's prisons, according to El Badeel newspaper. Former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed El Baradei is attempting to mobilize a "National Assembly for Change" and today the group issued a statement in Arabic that appears to describe the opposition's efforts to achieve power as an "intifada" and seems to demand the "renunciation of President Mubarak's rule." El Baradei himself is in the country; The Times of India quotes him as saying: "Mubarak has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire." Which is an enormously brave thing to say inside Egypt, considering that he could either end up as the next leader of a unity government or "tenderized" by the security services. Today, January 28th, is intended to be what's described as another "Day of Wrath"; Islamic weekends also begin on Fridays, so the demonstrations could become enormously large, and it's unknown what could happen. If the Mubaraks had to go, there are a few others besides El Baradei that might be in line to take the job. First, let's assume a scenario like Tunisia's, where Mubarak leaves but the NDP stays and the "same as the old boss" deal plays out; the candidate to watch in that situation might be General Omar Suleiman. He's the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS), and I think it's fair to say that the US government views him as, shall we say, cooperative. Another man to watch would be Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid, but he got himself caught up in some serious political trouble last year when the nation's wheat imports were threatened (50% of Egypt's wheat is imported), and that may come back to haunt him now. If the NDP were to lose control of the situation, you could have someone like Ayman Nour or Saad Eddin Ibrahim step in, so the question becomes whether the National Assembly for Change coalition can either hold together for the long term or form a "caretaker" government that might include several opposition leaders with elections to follow shortly thereafter. Nour's El Ghad Party and many others appear to be cooperating with the National Assembly for Change, at least for now, but the history of coalitions often involves the rapid dissolution of the group after victory is achieved, and there's no way to know if that might happen down the road. Could the Muslim Brotherhood establish a theocracy? Would they want to? That is the big question and I honestly do not know the answer. However, they are currently involved in the National Assembly for Change, and a representative of the Brotherhood (who, of course, doesn't "officially" exist) was quoted as saying that joining the movement:
...does not mean that we support for Dr. ElBaradei, as a candidate for president.
One thing I do know: the army has stepped in to maintain political order, more than once, and the Muslim Brotherhood would have to consider how far they could go before they caused a clash that would be bad for everyone. They also would have to deal with the "jobs and economy" and systemic corruption issues, as any secular government would, otherwise any potential victory might be a short-lived one. Speaking of the army stepping in, that could indeed happen, and a military government would not be that surprising an outcome if things were to really start getting crazy and basic order were to collapse in a big big way. The close relationship between the Mubarak government and the US security apparatus is something that is not well received at home, and we should expect that any new President not named Gamal would display a less warm public image toward the United States, even if they act differently in private. So that's what I know so far, and I'll try to find out more as I can, but the big story today is that today might look something like Iran last June, with lots of sound and fury and repression to follow. Or it might look like Tunisia, where "government du jour" is the order of the day. Various Internet services are being blocked in Egypt, but here's a Twitter page to check during the day, and if there's more to tell, we'll come back and tell it.
OK, there's more already: The Times of India is reporting that Gamal Mubarak took his family and left for London Wednesday morning, and now it's looking like the troubles might be spreading to Lebanon, where a coalition government with Hezbollah as one of the partners - despite their losing a 2009 election - has the country's Sunnis out in the streets.

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THANK YOU----That is THE best account I have read that makes logical sense to me and tells me the depth and intricacies of the issue.
EXCELLENT job and thank you again.

you are so welcome, and we will be watching this very, very, carefully.

tomorrow is islamic "sunday", and moday will be a workday--and all that suggests tomorrow will also be a big day.

thanks, bil, and i'm just starting the next one as we speak.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | January 28, 2011 2:39 PM

1) The relationship between the US and Iraq, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, the zionist colony in Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Afghanistan is similar to the neo-colonial relationships the US has with most Latin American nations. They're not 'strategic allies' as much as they're client states.

The US is the central military supplier and strategic hegemon of the royalist and ducal states in the region. The occupation of Iraq is evolving into the colonization of Iraq, in the sense that Poland was a German colony for most of WWII. The zionist colony in Palestine, Although it's occasionally difficult to decide which is wagging which, the dog or the tail, is definitely a US client state, much like the position of Romania in WWII.

2) There have been signs of an awaking of working people in the region for years. Most prominent were the anti-theocratic mass marches in Iran 2009 and the growth of trade unions in Egypt and Iraq.

Discontent with islamist and neo-colonialist regimes is widespread. The islamists, shiite and sunni alike, are bankrupt, having no real perspective to end the neo-colonial status in their respective nations. In Lebanon and in Palestine groups like Hezbollah and HAMAS are unable to stop zionist expansion and zionists campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians. HAMAS has degenerated to the point of accepting the right of the zionist colony to exist.

3) It's too early in the game to determine if the current unrest can accomplish more than a few cosmetic changes, as in Tunisia, but these are the three key things to watch for:

• The creation of secular, trade union based radical political groups such as the Oil Workers in Iraq in other nations, particularly Egypt.

• The renewal of pan-Arab nationalism, which has been long dormant and will tend to replace the ultra right islamists.

• The open renewal of anti-colonial military struggles unaffiliated with islamists.

i have friends in the egyptian opposition political leadership, and i suspect they would love to see some of the outcomes you would look for...but i don't think even they expect those things to happen.

the muslim brotherhood represents at least a quarter of the population, perhaps a third, and i suspect any solution will have to incorporate some accommodation for those who want to follow an islamist path.

to put it another way: you cannot ignore what a giant chunk of the population wants, and if you do not provide a political voice for religious groups, there will be trouble.

of course, providing a voice for religious groups could create worse trouble--but you only have to look at the tv today to see what happens when that voice is suppressed.

realpolitik is a world of catch-22 situations, and we really got us one here. (don't beleive me? the white house press briefing is a better tap dancing show than anything fred astaire ever have ever imagined...)

turkey is working through the same problem, and it's a challenge for them as well.

trade unions would certainly have a better chance to organize in a better egypt--but huge numbers of egyptians are unemployed, and they are not within the "sphere of influence" of unions, suggesting that bigger answers will have to be found.

it's not just islam: copts and sufi and orthodox christian egyptians want their religious voices heard as well, and while a secular approach might fit us sensibilities, there's no guarantee that egyptians will share that desire.

watching the army is of immense importance, as you note--but for the moment it looks like the army is backing away from a fight--and this may be the biggest signal of all.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | January 28, 2011 5:10 PM

If, if this progresses beyond the stage of street demos and riots and beyond popular acceptance of a change in government accompanied by a few piddling reforms it'll tap vast ocean if discontent in muslim and Arab neo-colonial states.

I think it's much too early to have a real feel for the situation. I'll comment later when we begin to get reports from Egyptian socialists and trade unionists.

1) Unions in these situations are often the principle organizers of the unemployed and displaced peasants and small farmers. The muslim Brotherhood has been seen as bankrupt for some time in left circles and may not be able to intervene successfully. It's up in the air for now.

2)For now I think that we should keep an open mind. Because the repression is so severe this development has a great deal more potential for producing a pre-revolutionary situation. Think of it as Concord-Lexington or the Women's march in Versailles. And then we'll see how far and how fast this street uprising mutates and progresses.

Revolutions are predicated on a revolution in the thinking of huge numbers of people. That may be happening in Cairo and Alexandria. It appears not to have happened in Tunis, yet.

3) Egypt has always been the linchpin of the fight for pan-Arabism and Arab socialism and it's absence from the field if battle has hobbled progress in the region for decades.

i'm putting together a follow-up story which will duplicate a lot of what i would say here, so i'll save most of this response for that story.

you should be aware, however, that the muslim brotherhood might be discredited among the left, but it is a fact that they operate social services, including schools and hospitals, in communities across the country, and a substantial portion of the population see those as being provided with greater competency (and at lower cost) than the efforts the ndp makes to provide the same services.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | January 30, 2011 8:49 AM

The roman cult operated charites that I'm sure earned them some appreciation. Until 1789. In short order they supressed, exiled and many were shaved very closely indeed by the National Razor.

Things change when workers take to the streets. We'll see just how much over the next weeks.

The best news to date is in Saturdays NY Times headlined Egyptians Defiant as Military Does Little to Quash Protests. "Then thousands of army troops stepped in late Friday to reinforce the police. By Saturday morning, a sense of celebration took over the central squares of the capital as at least some members of the military encouraged the protesters instead of cracking down on them.

i would add one other hopeful note: there are a lot of women present in these demonstrations, and if things were getting extremely violent that would not be something you'd be seeing as much.

i'm trying to find out what percentage of the looting might be related to the police themselves and released prisoners; if i find out more i'll get it back here.

i did see a tweet that was from someone who said he helped to capture what he described as former prisoners who were at his checkpoint, but that's anecdotal, and i'm trying to get a better idea of what's up.

Superb, truly informative analysis, Don. One rerely gets to see these events delineated in so much specific and varied detail.

i do appreciate that, and i'm trying to see where this could go; i think there's going to be one more story makes offers some cautions for the next year or so--or maybe less if things move faster than i expect.

Great post. And now... everything changes!

part six is already up for your editing "zazz" to be applied, and as i note in the story, the best insight we might have today is in knowing which questions to be asking tomorrow.

Tony Soprano | January 30, 2011 4:17 AM

Don -
Incredible insight, incredibly presented! Better info & analysis than any media outlet! Thank you.

To Bil, Don, and all -
GLBT aren't faring well in Egypt right now. What could happen if there is a change of power (especially that 'brotherhood')?

you're very welcome, indeed, and i will see what i can find out.

If these countries become theocracies by the will of their people (or most of them) so be it. I don't want that to happen anywhere including here in the USA because of the oppression it brings, but the USA gets along perfectly fine with dictatorships and extremely repressive regimes (China, Saudi Arabia, etc.) when they have something we want. History shows interfering with the evolution of others political processes only makes enemies. Hopefully we will stay out of it. Hopefully we will cut ties to repressive regimes regardless of their economic clout.

how many of us have been in a relationship where we futilely thought that we could "change" the person, only to make things worse in the end?

i would submit that some element of this was present when european ruling elites tried to run "the great game", and i would suggest we've been just as guilty, as you well note.

it is hard to "let it go" sometimes, and that's true for nations as well--and if you'd like an interesting parallel, look at how the baltic states and the "stans" and georgia and ukraine relate to russia today.