Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Making sense of Egypt: Part one, In defence of conspiracy as a method

At the beginning of February, a scheduled premier-league football game held in Port Said ended with a 3-1 victory for the host team. Despite this remarkable achievement against record championship-holder al-Ahly, once the game was over the fans of the team that just won, al-Masry, went on a rampage, eventually killing 74 and injuring at least 248 supporters of al-Ahly. This remains the bloodiest day the country has seen since the ejection of Hosni Mubarak from power more than a year ago.

The event was widely covered by international media, describing it as the worst ever incident of football-related violence in Egypt. Talk of conspiracy was chided as “far fetched” by a BBC correspondent in Egypt, who attributed the violence to the incapacity of poorly trained riot police to keep apart two sets of football fans with a history of mutual hatred.

Despite the observed increase in football-related violence in Egypt in recent years, pieces of information finding their way to the public since the carnage have left most Egyptians convinced that it was much more than a case of hooliganism going madly out of control. The slow pace of investigation, scarcity of reliable information and inflammatory coverage by the media of this and the other major incidents of violence in Egypt over the last year have fanned the flames of insecurity and reinforced the belief that there was a conspiracy behind the event. 

Egyptians are routinely taunted for their readiness to produce and consume conspiracy theories. In a recent meeting, a young ethnographer told me, in a slightly irritated tone, that my problem, like most Egyptians, was that I saw a conspiracy behind everything. We were not talking about the Port Said football violence but about another mysterious phenomenon, the meteoric rise of the Salafis from nowhere to become the second largest bloc in the newly elected Egyptian parliament. The ethnographer explained that the electoral victories of the Salafis were not unusual in a traditionally religious society such as that of Egypt, dismissing a statement I had just made about the suspicious connections between the Salafis and the State Security Investigation Service (SSIS) of the Mubarak regime.

It is one of the oldest games of politics in the book: divide and rule. The former regime wanted to fragment the constituency of the Islamists and gnaw at their power base: the poor, the illiterate and the traditional middle class. It sought to do so by playing the a-political Salafis against radical Islamists, on the one hand, and the Muslim Brothers, on the other hand. The Salafis were the ones that provided dope for the people: a true Muslim should not disobey a Muslim ruler, the practice of politics is haram, and the Muslim Brothers only cared about power and not enough about God.

Not only did the domestic security apparatus passively tolerate the Salafis, but more often than not they actively encouraged them, directly and indirectly, to spread their views in society. They wanted them to participate in ensuring people’s acquiescence.

The relationship between the authoritarian Egyptian state and the popular religious movement was similar to that between the Israeli civil administration and Hamas in the 1980s or the Sadat regime and the Islamist students’ movement in the early 1970s. Short of explicit cooperation, it was a convenient, implicit and informal partnership serving complementary and mutual interests and directed against a common foe, the PLO in the case of Israel and socialists in the case of Egypt.

I do not at all question the integrity of the Salafis. Yet given this background, I continue to be intrigued by their unexpected and impressive political fortunes. I looked back at the ethnographer and told him that without the assumption of a conspiracy, it was actually impossible to understand politics in Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter. As one economist put it, human beings do not just maximize their utility, they do so with guile, to include calculated efforts to mislead, deceive, obfuscate, and otherwise confuse. In such a model, economic (and political) agents disclose information in a selective and distorted manner, a fact recognized by Georg Simmel more than a hundred years ago when he wrote about the sociological function of secrecy, which is the stuff that conspiracies are made of. Adam Smith, not an Egyptian, said: People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”. (Thanks to Andy Roberts for bringing this quotation to my attention.)

Conspiracies exist. In politics, the assumption of conspiracy is equivalent to the peripatetic notion of prime mover - whenever there is a puppet dancing on a stage, there must be a puppet master somewhere hidden from view. Without evidence, one can never prove that there is a conspiracy concocted by human beings. However, the apparent absence of evidence indicting a criminal does not at all mean that the crime was not committed. It is naïve to think otherwise.

Back to Port Said. Results of the investigation into the violence announced on Wednesday, 14 March, seem to vindicate those who saw a conspiracy behind it. The prosecution has charged seventy-five suspects for their premeditated involvement in the crime, including nine high-ranking officials in the Port Said police force for their alleged complicity in facilitating it. The statement from the investigating authority was not clear about the motivation behind the violence. Many continue to believe that it was meant to punish the fans of al-Ahly, organised in an association of Ultras called Ahlawy, for their active support of the revolution.

Prior to the outbreak of the revolution, the Ultras were in constant trouble with the police. This was one reason why they were among those who flocked to Tahrir on 25 January. Initially, the demonstrations on that day were not intended to topple the regime, that came later. Rather, the demonstrators, including members of Ahlawy and White Knights, the Ultras of al-Ahly’s archrival, Zamalek, were protesting against police brutality and were calling, among other things, for the resignation of the powerful Minister of Interior, now on trial accused of ordering the use of live ammunitions against the demonstrators.

After the collapse of the security apparatus in the early days of the revolution, remnants of the old regime hired hundreds of thugs to disperse the Tahrir demonstrators. Mounted on camels and horsebacks, and brandishing swords, the thugs rode into the square in a scene reminiscent of old Egyptian movies depicting medieval conquests. Members of the Ultras of al-Ahly and Zamalek, with their experience in violent combat gained from years of frequent scuffles with the police, with one another and with other Ultras associations, were the best-organised revolutionary group to confront the thugs and other supporters of the Mubarak regime. After long hours of intense fighting, the Ultras, together with the rest of the anti-regime demonstrators, managed to hold their ground and prevent the invaders from overtaking the square. The army then intervened and separated the two forces. The attackers were eventually defeated and expelled from Tahrir. Many in Egypt believe that the massacre in Port Said, coming almost exactly one year after the so-called battle of the camel, was the belated revenge on the Ultras by thugs and their paymasters from the old regime.
As plausible as this might sound, it will remain not much more than speculation, pending the final verdicts in the trials of those recently charged. According to Egyptian newspaper reports, some in Port Said are arguing that the indictments are politically motivated, made by an insecure regime under public opinion pressure to find and punish the culprits and to placate the angry fans of al-Ahly. They believe that what was behind the violence was not a conspiracy of men, but one of fate.

The few days prior to the game were exceptionally tense. Young Egyptians celebrated the anniversary of the revolution with angry chants against both the military rulers and the Islamists, who had just won parliamentary elections. In October, November and December, violent clashes between the revolutionaries and security forces in and around Tahrir as well as in other parts of the country left at least 80 dead and many more wounded. On the eve of that fateful football game Egyptians were, and remain, polarised, disillusioned, confused and insecure.

In Port Said, there was widespread unrest during the two days preceding the game. The local government had announced that it would make available to the public low cost housing units. Demand was high. Applicants, however, including some supporters of al-Masry, were dismayed by the large amount of money required as a down payment. They began to demonstrate, blocked a few roads,  surrounded the governorate building and from there moved to the hotel in which the al-Ahly team and some of its fans were supposed to spend the night, as a measure of pressuring the governor to respond to their demands. Such sectoral protests have been increasing in Egypt since the ousting of Mubarak, and some of them have turned violent, adding to the sense of insecurity felt by most Egyptians. The governor eventually succumbed but a rumour spread that he was not sincere and that he only wanted to buy time until the football game was over.

An explosion into the sort of violence seen in Port Said at the beginning of February, under such a charged atmosphere, did not require a conspiracy but only a spark to set it off. Some claim that this spark came in the form of a placard that appeared in the stands of al-Ahly fans during the game with words on it in Arabic to the effect that there were no men in Port Said. For Egyptians, this is highly insulting and is considered an open invitation for a fight. Port Said also has a dark history when it comes to football violence, especially at games between the local team, al-Masry and the two major teams in Egypt, al-Ahly and Zamalek. In the last football game between al-Masry and al-Ahly, in April 2011, a similar disaster was narrowly averted, not by the police but by the army units that were tasked with maintaining security during the game.

This time round, the military was nowhere to be seen. Some view this as a typical case of Egyptian incompetence and lack of foresight. The temperature was rising before the game had begun. The police stopped the train taking the fans of al-Ahly to Port Said before it entered the city after angry crowds showered it with rocks, and upon receiving information that some al-Masry fans had gathered at the main station in anticipation of its arrival. The fans of al-Ahly had to complete their journey to the stadium on buses. Throughout the game, fans on both sides did not stop hurling insults at one another. Disregarding all these early warnings and failing to bring in reinforcements to manage the angry crowds are some of the accusations levelled against the governor of Port Said and his security chiefs.

This, however, is a benign explanation of the violence and is rejected by many in Egypt. To them, this was not a case of negligence but of complicity in the murder of al-Ahly fans, of attempting to destabilise Egypt and of undermining the revolution. Those who hold this view ask, why did the police allow known thugs into the stadium in the first place, with their knives, swords and all? Why did the exits of the stadium leading out of the stands, occupied by al-Ahly fans, continue to be locked after the game was over, even though they would normally be opened a few minutes before? And why were the gates of two of the three exits welded together upon orders given by the police a few days earlier?

We may never find out the truth about what happened in Port Said. This is an agonising problem for the families of those who were killed and injured there. But for political analysts, this is not the point. The objective of political analysis is not to judge, as in a court of law, but to understand and put forward a plausible explanation. One therefore could, and should, worry less about the stuff of tabloid curiosity, the identity of the acting subject, and focus more on indentifying plausible mechanisms and on understanding outcomes: who wins, who loses, and what are the implications of any political event for the equilibrium of power among the various players.

It is here that the assumption of conspiracy is most useful. When information is imperfect, it helps to complete the picture and to join the dots. It is a device, a method of explanation. It allows us to examine and make sense of a complex world, dominated by powerful associations of men and women who do not readily make their selfish objectives, and the strategies they use to pursue them, known to the wider public, and to well-meaning but gullible ethnographers and journalists. It is a tool of critique. It helps to expand the scope of analysis, to throw doubt on and question that which is supposed to be taken at face value and not to be questioned. It is an intuitive attempt to counter dubious accounts of reality produced by those who are in power, their agents and those who wittingly or unwittingly come under the sway of the words and images they circulate and unreflectively propagate them. One of the most powerful tools those unscrupulous power holders have to discredit their critics is to describe their counter-claims as a conspiracy theory, exactly what someone like Tony Blair did when he denied any complicity between his government and giant oil firms before the invasion of Iraq.    

Meanwhile, and until we know the full facts about what happened in Port Said and in other mysterious incidents of violence that have taken place in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak and his cronies, Egyptians continue to feel puzzled, confused and insecure. Many heap blame on SCAF, going as far as accusing its members of fomenting instability in the country to serve their own selfish interest in staying in power. This is not convincing. The story of post-authoritarian chaos in Egypt and the insecurity that Egyptians feel as a result is more complex. The obsession with SCAF by both revolutionaries and many external observers is distracting us from looking beneath the surface to examine the role played by many other forces in the unfolding conflict over the Egyptian state and the hearts, minds and loyalties of the Egyptian people.

* Thanks to Rosemary Bechler for her helpful comments.

For part two, see

- Published in Open Democracy, 22 March, 2012

Making sense of Egypt: Part two, a partial anatomy of insecurity

Timothy Garton Ash makes an error of commission when he argues that the biggest obstacle to freedom in Egypt today is the military-dominated security state that has run the country for 60 years and is now identified with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Of course, SCAF, as a quasi-sovereign clique of old, sickly men who surely understand that their time in power is almost over did not exist 60 years ago. The military, mainly through its powerful intelligence agencies, did dominate domestic security and the rest of Egyptian political life, but only until 1967. The defeat in the war against Israel that year shook the state and its military establishment to the core.

The first head to fly was that of the second in command at the Revolutionary Leadership Council, the effective commander of the armed forces, and Nasser’s life-long friend, Abdel Hakim Amer, who was stripped of his authority and then died under mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards. With him removed, Nasser could begin to purge the military and banish it from domestic political life. Four years later, in May 1971, Sadat finished the job of breaking the back of the military intelligence agencies, widely seen as flunking their duty of protecting Egypt against threats from abroad for the sake of building a web of corrupt agents persecuting Egyptians and pursuing not much more than the nourishment and protection of their own power and wealth.

From then on, the Ministry of Interior took charge of domestic security. The military no longer had any significant involvement in this vital sphere, focusing its energies instead on preparing for war against Israel, which it waged in 1973, and insulating itself from the vagaries of internal political and economic life mainly through building a considerable empire of economic interests aimed primarily at guaranteeing its economic self-sufficiency.

Over the years, the Ministry of Interior managed to build a formidable security apparatus. In the 1990s, it and its loathed State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) acquired more power and resources to engage in what was a civil war in all but name, between the state and radical Islamists. In 1997, Mubarak appointed SSIS strongman, Habib al-Adly, as Minister of Interior, a job that he held for 14 years until his downfall together with Mubarak in early 2011.

During al-Adly’s long reign, the tentacles of the state security apparatus were extended everywhere in Egypt and the police became the country’s ultimate guarantor of ‘stability’, of the regime mainly, using diabolic forms of random brutal suppression against the opposition and whoever dared challenge its authority.

Starting from the late 1990s, an alliance began to take shape between the police and the National Democratic Party, which was being taken over by Mubarak’s eldest son, Gamal, and the group of oligarchs surrounding him. This strategic group managed to capture the Egyptian state and turn it into a private arena for their personal enrichment. They presided over the liberalisation of the Egyptian economy, which basically meant the release of valuable state assets to be purchased at highly reduced prices by those plugged into what has been dubbed the “network of privilege” surrounding the former president. In return, the regime, with the domestic security service at its forefront, ensured the stability of the country and the silencing of dissent.

When the state security apparatus dramatically collapsed at the start of the revolution, SCAF could not fill the vacuum that ensued even after its implicit alliance with the only organised social force in Egypt, the Islamists, in an attempt to restore to the state some of its shattered legitimacy. The attempt has been only partially successful, and the domestic security sphere continues to be a key arena of conflict between remnants of the old regime and the loose coalition of forces that are trying to replace them at the seat of power, namely SCAF, the Muslim Brothers and a handful of liberal politicians. 

It is here that the greatest obstacle to freedom in Egypt lies. A recent Gallup survey shows that only 47% of Egyptians felt safe in 2011, compared to 82% who felt the same a year earlier. The counter-revolution will be successful, and the newly won political freedom of Egyptians will be in jeopardy, if a majority of them begin to realise that they fared better under the Mubarak regime. SCAF will bear a great deal of the responsibility if this happens, not because it dominates domestic security but because it has so far failed to do so.

What is notable is that a big part of the security problem in Egypt is a matter of perception. According to another Gallup survey, the number of Egyptians who say that they had money or property stolen from them dropped from 13% in November 2010 to 8% in August 2011, and the number of those who were victims of assault dropped from 7% to 3% during the same period. Despite the decrease in the objective causes of insecurity on the individual level, the growing perception of it arguably reflects the overall condition of chaos that has enveloped Egypt since the beginning of 2011. What is wrecking the nerves of many Egyptians is not just the intensity of highly visible cases of political violence and organised crime, including the carnage in Port Said at the beginning of February. Rather, it is the fact that in almost all of these cases, the state, with SCAF at its head, has so far been unable to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

One view sees this as an indication that SCAF is itself the perpetrator. By fomenting trouble, SCAF would present itself as indispensable to maintaining stability in Egypt and would therefore use this as an excuse to delay, or even pre-empt the transfer of power to civilians. This is not convincing. For the most part of the last 40 years, since Sadat’s reforms at the start of his presidency, the military has not ruled directly, and there is not a single rational reason to make it want to do so now. The military has traditionally exercised its influence from behind the back of large political organisations such as the National Democratic Party, formed by Sadat in the middle of the 1970s to replace Nasser’s Socialist Union as the key organ for mass mobilisation in Egypt. When that party was taken over by the strategic group around Gamal Mubarak, in a manner threatening the military and its vast economic interests, the military saw fit to throw its lot in with the revolution, an act which prompted some analysts to describe what has happened in Egypt in January 2011 as a coup d’état rather than a revolution.

The collapse of the NDP removed the civilian cover for military rule. This partly explains the intimate relationship that has developed between the military and the Muslim Brothers, the only organised political movement in Egypt behind which the military could continue to exercise sufficient influence over Egypt’s national security and could continue to preserve much, if not all, of its economic privileges. Whether this alliance will hold or not, remains to be seen. So far it is holding, to the benefit of both military and Islamists.

Arguing that SCAF is fomenting insecurity to hang onto power is, therefore, a misreading of developments over the last year and is an unreflective parroting of the narrative of the revolutionaries. A cursory look at those external observers who hold this view indicates that they fall into two groups. First, there are those who are attracted to writing about the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ but are themselves not regional experts. Timothy Garton Ash is honest enough to admit as much. Others are not. Second, from among the experts, there are those who are either romantic or orientalist in perspective. They are ready to believe that any eastern ruler must be evil by default and they would readily accept as true anything being said by those brave young people who, daring to speak out for their rights, have singlehandedly brought down the mighty regime of Mubarak the dictator. Either because they cannot or do not wish to, they fail to recognise, as Garton Ash perceptively remarked, that this is a western clichéd image attached to the Egyptian revolution, one which misses larger and more important truths.

The enmity of the revolutionaries towards SCAF must be placed in the context of the ongoing revolution and struggle for power in Egypt. They are not neutral analysts. They are parties to the struggle. Neither can their views, or those of other social forces - the military, the Islamists, the liberals or the remnants of the old regime - be presented either as fact or morally judged right or wrong, regardless of where the personal political preferences of supposedly professional analysts lie. And these, if they exist must be explicitly acknowledged.

Some - for example the Revolutionary Socialists, see SCAF, (alongside the Muslim Brothers and many other formally organised political parties), as huge obstacles to achieving the main objective of the revolution at this stage, which is to make it permanent until the consciousness of each Egyptian is transformed forever away from acquiescence to any form of exploitative authoritarianism. This is a view with which as an Egyptian I personally sympathise, but which I would not strive to promote surreptitiously as an analyst.

For others, SCAF is nothing but the continuation of the same corrupt regime that they wish to see destroyed, and it is actively working behind the scenes to protect Mubarak, his family and other former regime members from having to pay for the crimes they committed against the Egyptian people. More abstractly, many of the young people who flocked to Tahrir and who have now joined the ranks of revolutionaries, see SCAF, and its head, Hussein Tantawy, together with Mubarak, as representatives of that same cruel, self-contradictory father figure depicted so masterfully in Naguib Mahfouz’s novels, and against which they have finally mastered the courage to revolt. 

All this, as true as it might be, misses the point about the motivation behind the behaviour of the military in general and SCAF, in particular. What the military, as an organisation, wants is to retain the economic privileges it acquired over the last few decades. And to do so, it must be protected from the gaze of the masses by a legitimate political organisation such as the Muslim Brothers, or its predecessor, the National Democratic Party. As for SCAF, its members, all of whom should have retired years ago, want to secure their safe exit from power following the inevitable transition to civilian rule without being subjected to the same humiliating treatment as their colleagues from the old regime who are now withering behind bars. This is something that only a sympathetic parliamentary majority can provide for them. These two objectives are best served if Egyptians feel secure, even numb, under the leadership of SCAF and not the other way around.

Moreover, as many a venerable analyst has noted, the military, with SCAF at its head, enjoys the support of almost 80% of Egyptians. Unless it is made up of total idiots, it is not clear why SCAF would be fomenting trouble and trying to make Egyptians feel insecure in order to stay in power when it already enjoys such widespread support.

Well, if SCAF has not been orchestrating the violence in Port Said and elsewhere, who has? The majority of Egyptians who support SCAF, but who do not necessarily approve of its behaviour – a contradiction that requires another article to explain it – blame the remnants of the old regime for instability in the country. This is a loose category. Some include SCAF in it. However, when Egyptians use this term, they mainly refer to a number of other groups: the so-called Torah gang – Torah being the name of the prison complex in which Mubarak’s two sons and other former high-ranking officials are locked up. It also includes former leaders of the defunct National Democratic Party who still have access to considerable financial and societal resources and, most significantly, officials at the Ministry of Interior and the hordes of thugs at their disposal. These are the most likely culprits, the ones who do not wish to go down without dragging the rest of the country with them. This is the nature of bad losers everywhere, especially when the stakes are very high: power, prestige, privilege, and millions, even billions of pounds and dollars. 

To understand the dynamics of insecurity in Egypt we need to follow Garton Ash’s advice of going beyond clichés (including that which portrays SCAF as considerably more powerful than what it really is, one must add), and his exhortation, to start by understanding what is happening on the ground, in all its dusty, pot-holed complexity”.

During the few weeks following the start of the revolution, uniformed police officers vanished from the streets of Egypt. Years of arrogance, brutality and disregard for the basic human rights of Egyptians turned everyone against them. Some of the most dramatic scenes of the revolution included the burning down of some 90 police stations and countless of their vehicles throughout the country, the humiliating arrest of the Minister of Interior in his office and the ransacking of the offices of the disgraced State Security Investigations Service. The SSIS has since then been disbanded and reconstituted as a National Security Agency, with far less powers, at least in theory. Police officers lost any semblance of moral authority that they had before the revolution and only a few of them dared to appear in public in their uniforms, for fear of attack by an angry population that has broken the barrier of fear on 25 January.

As they were hastily retreating, and while the demonstrators were still occupying Tahrir demanding the fall of the regime, the police opened the gates of some prisons as an act of revenge on the society that dared to revolt against them, and in order to undermine the revolution from within. The order to do so reportedly came from the minister himself, al-Adly. Thousands of thugs and other dangerous criminals poured into the cities and villages of Egypt and, until this day, are terrorising Egyptians and are playing a key role in undermining the revolution. 

Simply defined, thugs are violent criminals and they do all sorts of things that criminals do: theft, murder and extortion, among other smaller and bigger crimes. There are, however, two key differences between them and normal criminals. First, they use violence as a first choice, unlike criminals who resort to violence only as a last option, if they use it at all. For example, a normal criminal would steal a car late at night, in stealth, when no one is looking. If about to be caught, he would instinctively try to run away. For a thug, this is dishonourable behaviour. If a thug, or rather a group of thugs, wish to steal a car, they would probably do so in broad daylight, beat up the driver or even kill him or her and simply drive away with the stolen vehicle. In a recent incident, they drove away with two babies in the back seat who were later found thrown onto the side of the road, luckily still alive.

The second main difference is that, unlike normal criminals, thugs perform political functions. Some thugs have been bred by the SSIS, which kept them on a tight leash but would let them loose on the regime’s opponents, beating them up, destroying their vehicles, burning their homes. During elections, they would be sent to terrorise would-be voters for opposition candidates. In exchange, the police would turn a blind eye to their crimes against the people, normally the poor. If they crossed certain red lines, for example committing brutal murders or generally creating a bad smell around themselves, the police would mercilessly crack down on them, put them behind bars or simply shoot them down like mad dogs.

With the vacuum created by the vanishing police force, the people formed popular committees to protect themselves and their property against increasing attacks by thugs and other criminals who made best use of the security vacuum. But this, among a number of other factors, almost brought the economy to a complete halt, with people choosing to stay at home with their families rather than going to work. And it could not have been a sustainable arrangement anyway. So the military had no choice but to try to fulfil normal policing functions: arresting criminals, organising traffic, securing vital buildings in addition to slowly stymieing the tide of revolutionary fervour. Similar to the Muslim Brothers, the military wished to get rid of Mubarak and his cronies but they had no interest whatsoever in seeing the revolution develop into an overall assault on the state, destroying it in the process.

Its visible presence in the street put the military in direct confrontation with the revolutionaries, who started to vent their anger at it, as the most visible representation of the state and as a key remaining pillar of the old regime that many of them wished to dismantle. The growing tension and distrust between the revolutionaries and the military allowed the thugs and their paymasters to wreak irreparable damage on the relationship between the two. Some young revolutionaries swore to me that they saw thugs shooting at the army from among the demonstrators during the sectarian clashes in Maspero in October, in which at least 27 people were killed, mostly Copts.

In the last months of 2011, the image of the military began to suffer as a result of repeated deadly encounters with demonstrators. This confronted SCAF with an intractable dilemma: continue to have a presence on the streets, only to be more and more identified with the counter-revolution. Or leave the street, but then the whole country might slip out of control and the state totally collapse under the weight of revolutionary fervour. Their only solution was to empower the Ministry of Interior to refill the vacuum and slowly hand security over to it.

The police started to reappear. However, many police officers continued to feel demoralised and unable to exercise any meaningful authority, which could be one explanation why they dared not intervene when the fans of al-Masry and the thugs accompanying them went amok in Port Said at the beginning of February.

In December, and after intense public pressure, a new government with far-reaching powers was sworn in. Finding a new Minister of Interior proved to be a major challenge. On the one hand, the old guards in the ministry vehemently refused to have a civilian occupying the top post, as some of the revolutionaries demanded at the time. On the other hand, the people refused to have one chosen from among the circle that had surrounded the deposed minister, who had managed to plant his loyalists in all key position in the ministry. Finally, a compromise was reached in the form of retired General Mohamed Ibrahim, who served under al-Adly but is not considered one of his close allies.

Ibrahim hit the ground running. He has led many police campaigns against thugs and other criminals, with some major successes, and is spending most of his time not in his air-conditioned office but in the streets of Egypt, talking to the people and providing moral support to his forces. The people responded positively, and the military must have sighed with relief as it began to reduce its visible presence in many parts of the country.

In football games, however, where the potential for violence is always high, the military maintained its support for the police. In a game held between al-Ahly and Mahalla in the Egyptian Delta on the last day of December, the police was successful in pre-empting violence and separating the fans before matters got completely out of control, but only after the military occupied the football pitch. The scenes of Mahalla fans going wild and attempting to attack the players and fans of al-Ahly now look like a dress rehearsal for what would happen, to more damaging effect, only one month later in Port Said.

This makes the collapse of security in Port Said even more puzzling, and raises a number of questions: Was it premature for the military to hand over total responsibility for securing the game to the local police force? In retrospect, the answer must be in the affirmative. Who, then, made that decision: was it someone from the military or from the police? So far, nobody knows the answer. What is known is that death in Port Said came at the end of a few months of bloody confrontations between the revolutionaries and a state teetering on the edge of collapse, one that has lost most of its capacity for maintaining law and order in the country. This, the logic goes, has been part of a systematic attempt by remnants of the old regime to undermine the revolution and to drive a wedge between the military and the people.

Spreading chaos in the country would be the fulfilment of the subtle threat disguised as prophesy made by Mubarak and his newly appointed vice president at the time, former General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, in televised interviews: if Mubarak was forced to step down, chaos would follow.

Until there is a conclusion to the investigations into the fatal incidents of political violence in Port Said and elsewhere, it is almost impossible to know where the truth lies. The outcome, however, is not such a moot point. Whether these were conspiracies of men or of fate, the outcome remains the same. The sense of insecurity felt by most Egyptians is undermining the revolution.

The new Minister of Interior is under pressure from the newly elected parliament, either to reform the ministry and get rid of those who remain loyal to the old regime, practically-speaking most of the ministry’s top brass, or to lose his job, which in fact might not be a bad choice for him. One theory about the motivation behind the violence in Port Said claims that it has been engineered by powerful elements inside the Ministry of Interior to undermine the new minister and pre-empt any attempt by him to effectively reform the system.

If there is any truth to this theory, then it must have been a serious miscalculation by the presumed culprits. The man has so far survived and continues to be seen in a favourable light by the people and their majority in parliament. All this should provide him with sufficient power, eventually, to get rid of his unruly subordinates. Traditionally, personnel changes at the Ministry of Interior take place in August. This year, it will come after the presidential elections. With a new president at the helm, and possibly a new government sworn in once the mandate of the current one expires in summer, it will be interesting to see whether Ibrahim will keep his job. More significantly, will he indeed be able to purge the Ministry of Interior of all those who have participated over the last few years in humiliating Egyptians and brutalising them, and who remain loyal to the old regime?     

What is at stake is not just the removal of a group of police officers from power or something that can be fixed by the receipt of technical assistance from the west in implementing so-called ‘security sector reforms’. At the heart of the matter is a complex political and social conflict between powerful strategic groups, all of whom wish to capture the state and its organs that are now up for grabs. The new National Security Agency, the heir to the disbanded State Security Investigations Service, is regrouping around the same cadre of officers who made up the SSIS. Only a few days ago, some members of parliament claimed that a National Security Agency officer was caught under cover, enticing a group of demonstrators to attack the People’s Assembly.

More worryingly, the powerful military intelligence agencies seem to be once again, after decades of absence, meddling in internal domestic security affairs. These agencies are more powerful than all the members of the SCAF put together, and far removed from any public oversight. SCAF itself is far from being a unified force, and the military as a whole has many competing branches. A young revolutionary told me that these branches are playing a dangerous game, competing amongst themselves for privilege and influence, not only behind closed doors but also in the streets of Egypt.

This may partly explain why SCAF, as a whole, has so far been unable to uncover and discipline those who have steered violence in the country over the last year. All this is coupled with a judicial system that boasts many honourable judges but at the same time is plagued with administrative inefficiencies and a jungle of laws most of which are incompatible with modern standards of governance. 

The outcome of this conflict shall largely determine whether Egypt will make further steps forward towards a healthy parliamentary democracy and respect for rule of law or regress into renewed authoritarianism and a random exercise of oppression.

Regaining a sense of security in Egypt requires far-reaching reforms in its domestic security sector, a formidable task in a country that has been ruled by force for the last few decades. Such reforms, to be meaningful, would involve the wholesale reformulation of an outdated political culture that is not compatible with freedom. Sub-optimal bureaucratic structures will have to be dismantled, against the desire of powerful interests who continue to benefit from them. New modes of thought and behaviour will need to be learned by the people who are the users and should also become the guardians of the behaviour of the organs of the new modern state in which they wish to live.

As history should teach those who dangerously delude themselves that Egypt could become a democracy in a matter of a few months or years, the revolution has just begun. It might take years, if not decades, for us to determine whether it was successful or not.

The first step must be for the state to regain its balance and its capacity to exercise monopoly on the use of force in society, and for Egyptians to feel secure in a country in which their basic human rights and socioeconomic needs are respected and fulfilled, and which they could finally have pride in calling their own.

* Thanks to Rosemary Bechler for her helpful comments.

- Published in Open Democracy, 22 March, 2012

Sunday, 29 January 2012

One year on: My mother as a protester and a few other dilemmas

At the risk of stating the obvious, think of revolution not as a single event but as a period of waves. After an initial disturbance, a swell gathers momentum, forms into a crest, breaks just before it hits the shore, creates a splash, dissipates and then starts to move in the opposite direction, breaks on another shore, retreats and then builds up again, and so on and so forth until the revolutionary energy is consumed and a new equilibrium is reached. In the Iranian Revolution, this process lasted for a short while before the revolutionary energy got diverted to the confrontation with the US during the hostage crisis and then the long senseless war with Iraq. This gave the new rulers time and space to fully capture the state and establish their authority. In the American and French Revolutions, the waves kept recurring for decades.

In Egypt, the revolutionary wave completed its first cycle in almost exactly one year, from the initial gathering in Tahrir in the afternoon of 25 January, 2011 until its dissipation with the first session of the new parliament on 23 and 24 January, 2012. The splash on the shore took place in November and December, when at least 84 Egyptians were killed and thousands wounded in the most violent clashes since the ousting of Mubarak last February.

Then Egypt became relatively quiet all of a sudden. The elections brought the vast silent majority, not to Tahrir but to the ballot box. Record turnout represented a vote for stability and a desire by ordinary Egyptians to resume their normal routines. The decline of the unifying revolutionary energy, and the replacement of the legitimacy of the square by the legitimacy of the popular vote, created a space in the streets for all sorts of dispersed grievances to come to the foreground. Therefore, the few last weeks prior to the first anniversary of the revolution have seen a sharp rise in so-called sectoral protests. From Sinai in the east to Matrouh in the west, from Alexandria to Aswan, in Cairo and all major cities, crowds gathered making all sorts of demands. In Alexandria, government-employed pharmacists protested against newly imposed caps on their bonuses. In Daba’a, on Egypt’s northwestern Mediterranean coast, an angry mob demolished buildings of a proposed nuclear plant erected on land confiscated from its owners more than thirty years ago. In Sohag, Asyut and Aswan in the south, railway tracks were sabotaged in protest over shortages of cooking fuel and petrol. Train services came to a total halt, isolating Upper Egypt from the rest of the country.

In Cairo, my mother took her walking aid and limbed her way to one of the squares of the city’s centre to join other pensioners who were demanding a 30% increase in their pensions. She worked for the government for almost 35 years and upon her retirement started to receive 1000 Egyptian pounds per month, which is around 125 Euros. She has other sources of income. Others are not so lucky. The pensioners were particularly incensed when they learned that former governments had squandered more than 430 billion Egyptian pounds from governmental pension funds by simply adding them to the general budget of the country to improve its overall balance.

These sectoral protests have created a dilemma for the revolutionaries who wish to continue with the revolution until the whole regime is dismantled, with army and all, and a new proud Egyptian is born, one who is not cowered at the sight of a police officer in uniform and is immune against subservience to any corrupt authority. The revolutionaries were elated at the sight of all sorts of Egyptians flocking to the streets demanding their rights. However, these demands could not be channelled into a single revolutionary momentum against the authoritarian state but were, in fact, fragmenting the revolutionary movement into small, controllable chunks. What’s more disturbing, from a revolutionary perspective, was that these demands were made to SCAF and the government. In other words, they were made to the last remaining strongholds of exactly the same state that the revolutionaries wish to dismantle and fundamentally transform.

The state bent backwards to meet the multitude of demands. A few days after my mother went out demonstrating with her fellow pensioners, the government announced that it would increase pensions for former government employees by 30% (once the initial anger was absorbed, this was later reduced to only 10%). Schemes for employing youth have been unveiled, and around half a million temporary workers were given permanent contracts. The state simply had no choice but to scramble for means to appease the population, in order to undermine any further swell of revolutionary momentum. But in doing so, it is only postponing the next implosion. With decreased production and little material support from abroad, a fiscal crisis is inevitable, some say by the middle of the year. The middle class revolution that has just concluded its first round may be then completely taken over in subsequent rounds by the hungry and disenfranchised. For some, this could have disastrous consequences. For others, it would be a welcome continuation and expansion of revolutionary momentum.

Which leaves those standing half-way between the state and the revolutionaries facing the most intractable dilemma. These are the middle class politicians, whether Islamists, liberals, socialists, token nationalists or opportunists who come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They are the ones who jumped on the shoulders of the revolutionaries in order to inherit the state from the previous regime. The Islamists, as the clear winners in the elections and the ones expected to deliver the goods by a distinctively impatient nation, are in the most awkward position. On the one hand, they must penetrate a mammoth state, grease the wheels of production, combat corruption, and keep the peace abroad while at the same time re-establish law and order and distribute justice and wealth more equitably. They are simply faced with and must solve the age-old contradiction between efficiency and equity under less than optimal conditions.

Over the long run, this is not at all impossible in a country relatively well endowed such as Egypt. But as the famous economist once said, in the long run, we are all dead. It is all about the short term now, at least until the revolutionary energy consumes itself completely. No one knows when this will be: it could be one year from now. Some of the Islamist politicians I meet here say 3-4 years. Others, mainly the revolutionaries, believe (or rather wish) it will be at least a generation before a new equilibrium is reached. 

As experience from elsewhere shows, success in solving the contradiction would be generously rewarded by voters, and the Islamists may end up as a result staying in power for a very long time to come. Failure, in case the alliance between the Islamists and the army holds, might lead to a slide back into authoritarianism. If the alliance does not hold, chaos might be the order of the day.    

* Published in Transcend Media Service (TMS), 06-12 February, 2012

Recommended reading (1)

This is a link to an article from the Nation.

When you finish reading it, please scroll down and see the comment I posted there and other comments. They should explain why I think that this is a good example of the kind of shallow and sensational analysis that hides more than what it reveals about what is happening in Egypt nowadays.

And this link is to an excellent piece on why Egypt cannot replicate the Turkish model.

I do not necessarily agree with the argument, and there are a couple of questionable empirical claims. But, on the whole, I think it is succinct, sophisticated and thoughtful.

The dark side of revolution: Thugs on demand and the poorest of the poor

There are about one million children living in the streets of Egypt. They are among the poorest of the poor in the country. Some of them are orphans with no relatives willing to take them in; others are born in sin and then thrown into garbage pins. Most have escaped from broken homes and cruel parents or elder siblings. They survive on garbage and compete with stray cats and dogs for food and shelter. The girls grow up to be prostitutes selling their bodies for a loaf of bread and the boys become petty criminals and, if they are lucky, hired thugs.

When the revolution broke out one year ago, those street children flocked to Tahrir and other major squares in Egypt and threw their lot with the revolutionaries. They felt the common bonds of humanity, probably for the first time in their lives, and developed a sense of comradeship with those more affluent youth who lived rough with them for 18 days, until Mubarak stepped down. Since then, there were sustained sit-ins in Tahrir and elsewhere, and the street children continued to mingle with the revolutionaries, who treated them kindly and made them part of the common cause uniting all Egyptians. On their part, the children finally found vehicles to vent their anger at a society that had routinely ignored them and, particularly, a police force that had abused them and treated them as animals and criminals.

In November and December, street children were at the forefront of the crowds clashing with the police and the army, and many of them were among the dead and the wounded. But then the revolutionary tide ebbed. In Tahrir, the sit-in by the last remaining revolutionaries ended soon after the start of the elections. The only ones left behind, feeling betrayed, were the street children, who simply had nowhere else to go but back to the streets of the city. Some of them chose to remain in makeshift tents in Tahrir. They served everybody’s purpose. The state could point to them and say, look, here are the revolutionaries: soot-covered bastards, petty criminals and the lowest of the low. Two close friends of mine, with very little interest in politics, happened to pass through Tahrir square the other day, and they said as much. On the other hand, the revolutionaries could point to them and say, look, the people are still in the square until the objectives of the revolution are met. The few tents of the street children provided good photo opportunities for revolutionary tourists, and it kept the embers of revolution somewhat alive, attracting a few passers by who would form small circles of debate in the middle of the square.

Then the first anniversary of the revolution was approaching, and the square had to look pretty and neat for petty middle class celebrations. So, a few days before the 25th, newspapers reported in their inside pages that “thugs” attacked the last remaining tents in Tahrir with knives and sticks, burned down the tents and cleared the square from “the criminal elements” who had been occupying it. No one bothered. The middle class had their revolution and were now busy quarrelling over the spoils, not in the streets but in the cosier parliament building.

Now, the thugs. In a sense, they could also be considered among the poorest of the poor, morally speaking: I could never understand why the term poverty should be used exclusively in mainstream development circles to refer to the lack of material wealth only.

Simply defined, thugs are violent criminals and they do all sorts of things that criminals do: theft, murder, extortion, etc. There are, however, two key differences between them and normal criminals. First, they use violence as a first choice, unlike other criminals who resort to violence only as a last option, if they use it at all. For example, a normal criminal would steal a car late at night, in stealth, when no one is looking. And if about to be caught, he would instinctively run away. For a thug, this is dishonourable behaviour. If a thug, or rather a group of thugs, wish to steal a car, they would probably do so in broad day light, beat up the driver or even kill him or her and simply drive away with the stolen vehicle. In a recent incident not far from where my mother lives, they drove away with two babies in the back seat who were later found thrown at the side of the road, luckily still alive.

I am told that the Egyptian Arabic word for thug, baltagy, comes from Turkish and it means someone wielding an axe, or a balta. Thugs these days do not use axes that much. Their weapons of choice are knives, swords, clubs, a few carry pistols and some, especially in the countryside, machine guns.

The second key difference is that, unlike normal criminals, thugs perform political functions. Some thugs have been bred by the former regime and kept on a tight leash. They used to be let loose on the regime’s opponents, beating them up, destroying their vehicles, burning their homes, etc. During elections, they would be sent to terrorise voters for opposition candidates. In exchange, the security services would turn a blind eye on their crimes against the people, normally the poor. If they break certain red lines, for example turning against their masters or other well-connected persons, committing brutal murders or generally creating a bad smell around themselves, the government would mercilessly crack down on them, put them on trial in civilian courts and send them behind bars.

Thuggery has dramatically increased with the start of the revolution. A few days ago Tantawi lifted the state of emergency, imposed more than 30 years ago following the assassination of Sadat, except in the case of thuggery. Some criticised this as a dangerous loophole. But almost everyone I spoke with enthusiastically approved of this, which goes to show how serious this problem has become, and how insecure Egyptians feel due to the collapse of the state’s capacity for maintaining law and order. While the demonstrators were still demanding the fall of the regime, in early February 2011, the gates of some prisons were thrown wide open, many believe intentionally by the retreating police as an act of revenge on the society that dared to revolt against them and to undermine the revolution from within. Thugs and other dangerous criminals poured into the streets and until today the police, which is slowly regrouping, are finding it so hard to deal with them.

The market for thugs bloomed and I am told that prices have gone down, due no doubt to the explosion in supply and the lifting of the near monopoly exercised on many of the thugs by the former security apparatus. An unarmed thug, usually a young boy, most probably a former street child, costs only 200 Egyptian pounds (around 26 Euros). A thug armed with a knife or a sword costs up to 500 pounds and one armed with a machine gun costs 2500 pounds. I could hire a thug to commit a murder for 8000 pounds, to kidnap a child, 3000, and to cause a visible injury, 2500. Many thugs are their own bosses, mainly stealing cars that eventually end up in Gaza through the tunnels, as some claim.

Politically, thugs have managed to create an irreparable damage to the relationship between revolutionaries and army. Some of the youth of the revolution swore to me that they saw with their own eyes thugs shooting at the army from among the demonstrators during the sectarian clashes in Maspero last October. When the army shoots back, it hits demonstrators, and all hell breaks loose. No one knows exactly who is now hiring these thugs to perform such dirty political work. The major suspects are remnants of the old regime. Other suspects include foreign intelligence agencies and, more ominously, different organs of the state. A member of one of the revolutionary youth coalitions believes that different branches of the military are playing a dangerous game, competing for controlling domestic security with other agencies, which explains why the SCAF, as a whole, has so far been unable to control this phenomenon. No one knows the truth. The fact remains, thugs are on the loose and are a major source of headache for rich, poor and middle class alike.

Tahrir and other squares in Egypt started to fill up again as the anniversary of the revolution drew nearer. On the big day itself, the square was once more packed with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all imaginable backgrounds: rich, poor, young, old, Muslims, Islamists, Christians, kids in western style baseball hats and ponytails and men in traditional galabiyas. The street children returned, and the thugs were nowhere to be seen. The revolutionaries were carrying mock coffins in remembrance of the “martyrs” of the revolution and shouting: down, down with military rule. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, built a stage and its leaders made self-congratulatory speeches celebrating the revolution.

For a day, the spirit was good, and Egypt looked like a harmonious, civilised place once again. But one could feel the tension and divisions beneath the surface. Next day there were some minor scuffles between the revolutionaries and some supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, accused of “stealing the revolution”, and some thugs harassed a foreign female tourist. But the anniversary on the whole came and went more or less peacefully. Some called it a celebration. Others called it the start of the second revolution. People are wary and confused, and none of the major social forces seem to know exactly where to go from here. The next period will see the potential for either further division or conciliation over explosive issues such as the drafting of the constitution, the choice of a new president and the transfer of authority to civilian rule. The revolution continues, and the people will at one point chose between the legitimacy the parliament, the legitimacy of the square or decide to ignore both and go out and create a new legitimacy of their own, anarchy.    

Sunday, 1 January 2012

No mood for compromise

Rami Bathish asked: “Do you get the impression that a pluralistic society will stand a chance in the new Egypt? Mine is not a rhetorical question, I am actually wondering if this will happen or not, and I am not concerned with Copts and Muslims. I mean: do you think that there will be a pluralistic political structure, or will it be dominated by one party/ideology (as the old regime managed to sustain)?”

I do not have yet an answer to this question. But here are some observations, from the last two days only, that might give a clue.

- The liberals are sour as a result of the overwhelming success of Islamists in the first two phases of the elections. Some have accused the majority of Egyptians of being backward and ignorant for giving their votes to the Islamists. A few have suggested that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy, and that some of the population should not be allowed to vote.

- This Friday, an obscure coalition called for a demonstration in Tahrir square to signal the end of hostility between the revolutionaries, who have been demonstrating in Tahrir against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and those who have been demonstrating recently in another part of town, Abbasiya square, in support of SCAF. Only a handful of people showed up, much to the embarrassment of those who issued the call. Major revolutionary groups, such as the 6th of April movement and the Union of Revolutionary Youth, boycotted the demonstration, announcing that there could be no compromise with the counter-revolution, and that those who issued the call represent no one but themselves.

- Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, invited representatives of all political forces to attend the Church’s Christmas celebration next week. A significant number of his followers objected and announced that they will perform a sit-in at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo to prevent Salafis and representatives of the army from attending, by force if necessary. They argue that those responsible for burning churches (a reference to Salafis) and those who killed Coptic demonstraters in Cairo a few months ago (SCAF) are not welcome in the church. There has been a growing and, some say, irreparable schism inside the Church between an active young revolutionary generation and the older leadership. Of all major social forces in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church remained loyal to Mubarak until the end, and it instructed its members not to participate in the January-February 2011 demonstrations. The Salafis, on their part, declined the invitation, saying they could not participate in such a non-Islamic celebration.

- A breakaway Salafi group announced the formation of a committee for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue, a kind of an informal religious police modeled on a similar group active in Saudi Arabia since the 1940s The committee, made up of young volunteers who would go around asking people to observe the Islamic code in the street: women should be veiled, alcohol should not be sold and a strict separation of men and women in public should be strictly enforced, etc. They claimed they were part of the Salafi Nour party, which collected the second largest number of votes in the first two phases of the elections. The party, together with the Muslim Brothers and al-Azhar, denounced the group. Its Facebook page was hacked by other Islamists, and there was a general outcry in society. The founders of the group took to the offensive, allegedly resigning from the Nour party and accusing its official spokesperson of being an agent for the state security service.

There are many other examples. Conflict, and not mere competition, is in the air: between Islamists and liberals, Muslims and Copts, among Copts, among Islamists, between generations, men and women, old regime and revolutionaries, army and people, even inside the army: I was told by a retired army officer that the top brass of the army are so keen to hand over power mainly because of their fear that the officers and the rank and file would violently turn against them if they don’t. Egyptians are angry and are in no mood for compromise. There is a failure of communication everywhere and the values of tolerance and peaceful, rational dialogue, essential in any pluralist system, are buried deep beneath long years of authoritarianism and misrule. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that pluralism does or does not have a chance to flourish in Egypt. This is a more complex story, one to which I wish to return in a future postcard.

In the meantime, please keep your questions coming.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

The sound of chaos

Leaving high (and low) politics aside, I would say Egypt has reached a better future if three simple, practical things happen: 1) When people move with tolerance and learn the ethic of allowing those on trains and buses to get off before they rush to get on; 2) When Egyptians grasp the concept of lanes, and the driver of a police vehicle does not break the law by driving head-on, with impunity, against the normal flow of traffic and; 3) when the nurse at my dialysis ward, to whom I have just given a handsome tip, refuses such gratuity with indignation and does not allow me to smoke in my hospital bed. Understanding the obstacles preventing these and similar cases of bad behaviour from changing, articulating the right bundle of strategies to create the enabling environment for good behaviour and effectively implementing them requires at least a generation or two of exceptionally good government. But now is not the right time to talk about such technical subjects anyway, when some Egyptians are in Tahrir yelling at the army, some others are shouting at those in Tahrir from Abbasiya, and the rest are hysterically trying to make some sense of the high (and low) political hartala that is jamming the space. Egypt is chaotically loud, everyone is talking and only a disempowered few seem to have the capacity to listen. Whether the chaos turns out to be creative or not, even after a generation or two, remains to be seen.