Egypt: The police, the army and the people

29 Jan

All eyes are on Egypt today, and by the time I post this note, the political situation may have radically changed. Tens of thousands of protesters are pressing President Mubarak to leave office, not satisfied by his half-hearted stalling tactic of firing his cabinet. As Saturday ticks away (Cairo is seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time), the wind seems to be blowing against his staying for long. Only a handful of people know what’s being said behind closed doors in government offices in Cairo, Washington, the U.N., Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The street battles between protesters and police have been well documented and shown around the globe, especially on Friday, despite the Egyptian government’s shutdown of the Internet, cell-phone service and social media in an attempt to cut off communication between groups of protesters and between Egypt and the rest of the world. By contrast, the protesters are welcoming the Egyptian army when soldiers are dispatched to Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Compare and contrast this image, taken  yesterday, with this one, from today. (Hover over the links to see photo credits.)

I’ve been wondering why the difference: Why welcome the soldiers and fight the police since they are both controlled by the same government, at least in theory? It turns out, not surprisingly, that there’s a history. Thanks to Wikileaks‘ release of diplomatic cables, we can get a sense of what the Egyptian people have had to deal with during Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule.

First, the Egyptian police. A cable from the American embassy in Cairo to the U.S. State Department on Jan. 15, 2009 summarized:

Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have criticized GOE (Government of Egypt)-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution.

The cable provided numerous examples, including this and this.

The Egyptian military, by contrast, has been more benign or at least less terrifying to its own people. The army lost some stature after the Arabs’ failed 1967 war with Israel, but in the time since then, the military has re-fashioned itself in other ways, possibly being overlooked because of its diminished role. Whatever the reason, to put it roughly, it looks like the military has been going along to get along with the Mubarak regime (and profiting handsomely as they did so) — and biding its time. This week, maybe, its time has come. The Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are certainly acting as if the army is on their side.

From a Sept. 23, 2008 cable from the American embassy:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises.

Later in the same cable:

The military still remains a potent political and economic force. Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s (Ministry of Defense’s) considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council (upper house of Parliament) fire in August (2008) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail. The military helps to ensure regime stability and  operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a  “quasi-commercial” enterprise itself. While there are  economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial.

As of Saturday morning in the U.S., at least for amateurs like me it’s too early to know how things will go in Egypt, but the military is the big wild card. For the time being, however, it’s clear that the Egyptian protesters — and probably most Egyptians — know who are their internal institutional enemies and who, they hope, may turn out to be their best friends.

Photo: Gallo/Getty image, via Al Jazeera (English).

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One Response to “Egypt: The police, the army and the people”

  1. Chelsea Farnam February 4, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    Fascinating insight. Those cables explain so much. Thanks for sharing!

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