Why Tunis, Why Cairo?

Issandr El Amrani

‘Egypt is not Tunisia,’ the pundits repeatedly said on television after Zine Abedine Ben-Ali fled Tunis for Saudi Arabia. They pointed to the differences between the two countries: one small, well-educated, largely middle-class; the other the largest in terms of population in the Arab world, with a high rate of illiteracy and ever widening inequality. Tunisia was a repressive police state in which information was tightly controlled and most people never dared to criticise the leadership out loud. Egypt was a military dictatorship that allowed a fair amount of freedom of expression, as long as it had no political consequences: you could criticise the president, but not launch a campaign to unseat him. In Tunisia, a rapacious first family indulged in widespread racketeering, alienating every social class. In Egypt, most of the elite benefited from the stability the regime maintained, and while corruption was endemic, it was not generally identified with a single clan.

But there were also important similarities. In recent years, the legitimacy of both regimes had begun to wane; in each case the ruler had been in place so long that half the population had no memory of his predecessor – more than 23 years in the case of Ben-Ali, nearly 30 in the case of Hosni Mubarak. People were uncertain about the future. Both regimes had effectively emptied formal politics of meaning by banning any party that had real popular appeal and restricting others to the status of a loyal opposition, thus depriving itself of intermediaries between the state and its citizens who could have negotiated an end to the crisis. Both countries’ supposed stability was dependent on a strategic relationship with the West. Tunisia enjoyed a warm and privileged relationship with Paris: it was reassuring for the French, angst-ridden about the growing visibility of their Muslim minority, to be able to look approvingly on a Muslim country that peddled its own commitment to laïcité as a signal that although it might be a dictatorship, it was an enlightened and progressive one. As for Egypt, Anthony Eden may have described Nasser as ‘that Hitler on the Nile’, but after the 1978 Camp David Accords the country became a pillar of American interests in the Middle East and – by its withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli conflict – an unwitting enabler of the expansionism of the Zionist state.

Above all, Tunisia and Egypt were the last places in which most people – whether experts or ordinary citizens – would have expected to see uprisings anything like those of recent weeks. On the evening of 27 January, I sat in a hotel room in Tunis, eyes glued to Twitter for news of what was happening in Egypt. I had come the previous week to report on the Tunisian revolution, which on 14 January had forced Ben-Ali to flee. The mood in Tunis was exhilarating, the situation seemed pregnant with possibility. I didn’t recognise the country I knew: a people I had thought cowed by years of subtle psychological terror as practised by one of the Arab world’s most sophisticated police regimes, had changed overnight. On my last visit to Tunis, in 2003, people had seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and in some way – cruel though it may be to say this – complicit in their own predicament. Now Tunisians were high on the freedom not only to express themselves, but to imagine the future shape their country might take.

Just before midnight, I began to receive calls from Cairo that the internet there was no longer working. A few days later I would find out that State Security had been monitoring and controlling the flow of voice and data communication since the first day of the protest, during which they had either shut off or lowered the capacity of mobile phone relay towers in areas where the protesters were congregating. It was the first sign of regime panic. As one friend said, ‘It was as if I had gone to bed in Egypt and woken up the next day in North Korea.’

I have lived in Egypt for 11 years. The internet has almost never been censored. A privately owned press had blossomed there, providing the critical news coverage previously absent from the state-controlled media. There was limited freedom of association; the regime occasionally cracked down on protests, particularly if Islamists were involved, but otherwise it was usually willing to tolerate protests. It had, however unconvincingly, appropriated the reform discourse of the opposition and shifted to a subtler, neo-authoritarian mode. Egypt is a largely globalised country, reliant on foreign investment and money from tourism, whose PR stresses its ‘moderate’ nature and the openness of its people. But there will be no return to the status quo after recent events: the shutdown of the internet, violent clashes between riot control police and protesters, and a dying regime’s cynical manipulation of the security situation has made that much certain.

The significance of Tunisia’s revolution was to demonstrate that change is possible in the Arab world; it was a spark that found ready kindling in Egypt and elsewhere. The import of the events in Egypt is different: the legitimacy of military-backed Arab republican regimes in place since the 1950s and 1960s has evaporated, but they too are learning from the Tunisian example and will stop at nothing to maintain their position. The question now is no longer whether Mubarak will survive as Egypt’s president, but whether the regime he represented – his generation of military officers were the immediate successors of the men who had participated in the coup that overthrew the monarchy – will be able to continue.

Mubarak’s appointment of his long-time confidant and chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, as vice-president (and in effect as heir apparent) on 29 January and the speech he delivered on 2 February announcing that he will step down in September, when presidential elections are scheduled, testified to this former air force pilot’s loyalty to the institution that shaped his life, the military. As normal life has shut down across the country, and the police and security forces have largely disappeared in many cities, the army has remained the only institution to preserve any legitimacy in the eyes of the protesters, who initially welcomed the soldiers with flowers. But, as I learned in Tunisia, the public mood can swing rapidly, and after the sad spectacle of soldiers looking on as a pro-Mubarak mob attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square with swords, metal bars and Molotov cocktails, hope for a gradual, negotiated transition to democracy is now almost nil. Either the military will continue to stand by and let a mob raised by the regime end the protest or it will turn against itself, with younger officers taking on the likes of Mubarak and Suleiman and the ageing generation who are Egypt’s ‘deep’ state. This latter outcome, unfortunately, does not appear likely.

That the military should find itself in this position represents a colossal failure, primarily of the elaborate police state it had established over the last few decades precisely in order to distance itself, as an institution, from the day-to-day repression that kept the regime in place and ensured that no viable opposition leadership could emerge. Since the Camp David Accords of 1978, the military has been profiting from its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt’s standing army of more than 460,000 men, with its 4000 tanks and hundreds of fighter jets, with its three-year conscription (used to a large extent to provide free labour to army-owned farms and factories turning out dairy produce, poultry, bottled water and countless other goods), its lavish medical facilities and officers’ clubs, has never had to justify its existence or the drain it represents on the state budget.

At the same time, a security establishment estimated to employ, including informants, up to two million people, formed a parallel government, defusing dissent at a local level. It was security personnel, and not cabinet ministers, who negotiated with striking workers and contained the demonstrations by the anti-Mubarak movements that sprang up after 2005 in reaction to the president’s apparent desire to hold on to the post for life and ensure that his son Gamal would succeed him. Egyptians with any public standing – politicians, businessmen, journalists – had a security handler, a relationship that served to intimidate, reward and guide. The result was a political ecosystem with much more flexibility than existed in Tunisia under Ben-Ali, but this flexibility had its limits, and the system proved surprisingly unable to adapt when faced with a leaderless protest movement. It turned out that the biggest weakness of the Egyptian opposition – its inability to produce a charismatic leader with wide public appeal – was also its strength.

The man at the centre of this failure is Habib al-Adly, Mubarak’s minister of the interior since November 1997. Despite scandals over widespread torture, a decline in the quality of police work (Egyptian prosecutors often find themselves having to drop cases because defence lawyers can plausibly, and usually truthfully, claim that their client’s confession was extracted by torture), three major terrorist attacks in Sinai and several smaller incidents in Cairo, and increasing resentment of the security services’ intrusion in people’s daily lives, al-Adly emerged as one of the strongmen of the late Mubarak era.

He was the first of a new generation of security officers to become interior minister. In the 1990s, he received FBI training and brought in some of its methods, especially after the Iraq War increased the size and reach of the anti-Mubarak movement. He controlled State Security, a body that has long been used to stem internal dissent (at one time it focused on Communists, later on Islamists) and has in the last decade handled opposition politicians, tried to reduce labour unrest, and acted as an electoral broker. It was perceived as the Mubarak family’s first line of defence as it attempted to impose Gamal as Mubarak’s successor.

The demise of al-Adly after the events of 28 January – he had disappeared from public view by the following day, when the army took over the building housing the Ministry of the Interior – is central to a proper understanding of what’s been happening in Egypt. The protest movement’s apparent victory over the riot police on Friday 28 January forced the regime to do what it had only done twice since the 1973 war: deploy the military. When Sadat did the same in response to the bread riots of 1977, the army leadership agreed only on condition that the price of bread would be lowered. In 1986, riot police – mostly made up of rural and illiterate conscripts – rioted against the extension of their conscription period: helicopter gunships shot them down as they emerged from their barracks near the Pyramids and headed towards downtown Cairo. Since then, Mubarak had kept the army out of public life: the identity of senior officers – household names during the wars with Israel – is unknown to most Egyptians.

According to reports circulating in the Egyptian press, al-Adly was warned by Mubarak himself at 5 p.m. on 28 January that the army was about to arrive in central Cairo. The same reports suggest that a frustrated al-Adly decided to withdraw all police from the centre of Cairo and let loose the baltagiya – thugs hired by the police to beat up protesters – with orders to loot and cause mayhem (a Ministry of Interior document that appears to confirm this has surfaced on the internet). Later the same evening, prisoners were allowed to escape from several of Egypt’s most important prisons and (in still unconfirmed reports) political prisoners were executed. At sites known to be used by the security forces, holes were being dug in which to burn and bury documents, tapes and CD recordings. Gangs of looters, some of them later found to be carrying IDs from the security services, looted supermarkets on the outskirts of the city.

The next day looting and violence were widespread. Neighbourhood watch groups were set up and manned checkpoints with almost comical seriousness, checking the ID of the most innocuous passers-by. Tanks block major intersections, particularly close to the centre, and helicopters fly continuously overhead. The entire military deployment feels staged, intended to cause alarm: most people have never experienced anything like this – Cairo has turned in the space of a few days from being one of the safest capitals in the world into a Sarajevo or Baghdad.

There was a reason the protesters launched their movement on 25 January: it was the day on which in 1952 British troops massacred police officers in Ismailiya, a town midway along the Suez Canal. In the Mubarak era, it was known as Police Day and celebrated by marches and demonstrations on the part of the Ministry of Interior’s finest: its highlight in Cairo was a speedboat procession on the Nile. State television generally marked the occasion with a primetime interview with the minister of the interior, during which the interviewer (in recent years a notorious regime toady best known for his panting deference and startling combover of nicotine-stained hair) would marvel at the minister’s feats of vigilance. All this pageantry has increased considerably over the past decade, a sign of Mubarak’s increasing reliance on repression. In 2009, he announced that Police Day would now be a national holiday – which meant (providentially) that the 25 January protesters had the day off. The size of the protest – in Cairo alone an estimated twenty thousand people took part: although al-Jazeera and others exaggerated, claiming more than a hundred thousand – caught even the participants by surprise. What happened afterwards, culminating in a ‘million-man march’ on 1 February, was unprecedented. Most astonishing was the absence of fear among the protesters, most of whom were attending a political event for the first time.

By the afternoon and evening of 28 January, it had become clear to everyone that a major confrontation was coming. (Egypt’s football association had the previous day announced the suspension of a game between Egypt’s most popular club, al-Ahly, the National, and el-Shorta, the Police.) By midday, protesters across the country had taken on riot control forces armed with rubber bullets, rubber pellet shotguns, tear gas and armoured vehicles. They fought with great bravery, jumping on top of armoured vehicles, surrounding water cannon trucks and shaking them until they overturned. Teenagers ran towards tear gas canisters as they landed, picked them up and threw them back towards the troops. At times, protesters who had come equipped with medical masks and vinegar-soaked towels to neutralise the gas even attended to injured troops.

The protesters’ finest moment was what has become known as the Battle of Qasr al-Nil Bridge, during which they pushed back riot-control troops across a bridge linking Tahrir Square to the exclusive district of Zamalek. Security vehicles chased protesters, running several of them over, before themselves being immobilised and set on fire. A few protesters tried – unsuccessfully – to lift a police truck over the bridge’s railing and into the Nile. Such news as trickled in from other cities, notably Suez and Ismailiya, suggested that even fiercer skirmishes were taking place there.

Later in the evening, an increasingly angry crowd of as many as a hundred thousand gathered again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – youths moved about in an adrenaline daze, shirtless in the January cold, their chests and backs bloody where they’d been struck by rubber bullets and pellets. Some stopped passing cars and began to siphon off petrol to make Motolov cocktails; others set fire to the security vehicles they had captured. The petrol was also used to torch the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, just off the square: the blaze took three days to die out and came perilously close to spreading to the adjacent Egyptian Museum, which houses the Tutankhamun collection. Amid the chaos, some of the protesters mounted guard at the museum entrance, protecting it from looters. Some looters got in but they mostly ransacked the gift shop, though a few statuettes lay shattered on the floor the next day, left behind by looters disappointed that they were not solid gold.

The protesters don’t represent any particular political party, civil society group, ideological tendency or social class. Some come from deep in Upper Egypt – which has generally seen less upheaval – and others from Alexandria. One man I met who had slept on the street for days told me he wouldn’t leave until Mubarak does, or he dies himself. A middle-class, middle-aged couple giddy with excitement at taking part in their first political action since their university days in the 1970s carried a sheet of paper that simply said: ‘Leave and let’s live.’ There may be a core of activists who have been preparing for this day, but they are outnumbered by people who are there just because they have had enough.

A new political reality has taken shape in Egypt, one that goes beyond the legal opposition parties long complicit with the regime: the Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the protest movement late and reluctantly; and civil society groups and figures – Mohammed ElBaradei, for example – who have tried, unconvincingly, to claim leadership of the movement. Eventually, it will need a leader, but the events of recent days suggest that the regime – which has already split the formal opposition over the issue of Mubarak’s immediate resignation, the protesters’ one non-negotiable demand – is not serious about negotiating.

A pro-Mubarak movement has been drummed up, but many suspect that its members are plainclothes security officers and the usual hired thugs. Sadly, it’s likely that it also includes low-level cadres from the ruling party and ordinary Egyptians manipulated by the propaganda broadcast all day long by the regime on all ten channels of state television (the ones most Egyptians watch), as well as on some of the privately owned satellite channels. I have heard it claimed that my former employer, the International Crisis Group, conspired against Egypt; the commentator held up as evidence the fact that the Crisis Group had issued a statement on the situation in Egypt and that its previously published reports on Sudan and Kosovo had led to unrest in those countries. George Soros, one of the group’s main funders, was said to be the mastermind behind this plot (countless other Egyptian Glenn Becks would repeat the charge of muamara – ‘conspiracy’ – against the nation orchestrated by ‘foreign hands’). Pro-Mubarak youths were interviewed and allowed to claim that the anti-Mubarak protesters were all foreigners and Jews. A woman whose appearance and voice were changed to hide her identity claimed she had been an anti-Mubarak activist and had received subversion training from Israelis and Americans.

The regime is exploiting the fears of a largely poor and uneducated population, which only a few days earlier had shown itself capable of great solidarity, and blaming the insecurity it created itself on the protest movement. The concessions thus far – Mubarak’s announced departure, a willingness to negotiate constitutional and other reforms – were intended to achieve only two things. First, to counter foreign, and particularly American, pressure on the regime. Second, to make the public believe that a protest movement which continued to insist on Mubarak’s immediate departure was not being reasonable. That argument has convinced many people who are desperate for things to return to normal.

When Ben-Ali fled from Tunis, he created a vacuum at the top of the state that was imperfectly but quickly filled. The initial interim government did not please many, but a sense of civic duty appears for now to have stabilised the situation without a resort to authoritarianism. Mubarak, on the other hand, created a security vacuum in order to spread panic. In agreeing to step down, he tried to ensure that the regime would survive. Egypt is not Tunisia, at least not yet.

4 February