The State vs. The People

The joke goes that when a security officer once explained to a visiting writer over dinner that Egypt was in reality a police state, a general nearly choked on his drink before correcting him, “good God man, it’s a military dictatorship!” Well, allegedly the Egyptian generals were not happy about the bloated powers of the security forces and their Incredible Expanding Apparatus during the long criminal years of ruin that Mubarak inflicted on Egypt. Senior military figures lower down the echelon were telling people during the uprising this year that whether the people took to the streets in a showdown with the Interior Ministry or not, there were already rumblings in the military that something needed to be done to knock the more shoddy-if-not-immediately-effective coercive force down a peg one or two. But words are easy, and what Egypt is witnessing now looks more like a cosy double-act.  

The army is all-powerful in Egypt, and from the propaganda on state television you might think this was 1952 all over again. “The army and the people are with one hand” the ubiquitous slogan goes, and huge posters round the city show you a saluting general because the army is “faithful” to Egypt. The military’s grip on civilian government, as it stands in for Mubarak, is tight: of course, it wants to maintain its large interests in the economy and its control of foreign policy. Most governors are military men, including those in the border governorates. In addition to at least four former generals in cabinet positions right now, most ministries have senior secretaries (wakil wizara) who are from the military and act like spies for the military council. Essam Sharaf is their kind of prime minister because he is seen as weak and incapable of standing up to Annan, Tantawi and co. The government wanted to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv after the Israeli army shot dead Egyptian soldiers in Sinai last month, but journalists who follow cabinet affairs say it was clear that Sharaf was told bluntly that that wasn’t going to happen. Which would explain the confusion over government statements, one of which said the ambassador was to be recalled (and over which a scapegoat secretary was sacked for his “mistake” in faxing the statement).

The date for parliamentary elections is to be announced later this month, but there is still no guarantee they will take place on time or as hoped by those waiting for democratic from above. If they do start on 21 November, there will still be two other dates to follow since it’s a staggered vote in three stages and, just like in 2005, a good showing for the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces in the first round will be enough to generate a debate about changing the rules of the game in some undemocratic, Mubarakesque manner for the subsequent votes. Already figures from Mubarak’s NDP have distributed themselves in different ways in the emerging constellation of parties. The most prominent of them is Hossam Badrawi, with his announcement of a new party this week, but there are others, as well as the Wafd party’s indication it will allow some NDP people deemed “respectable” to run on its list. 

Security forces only turn up for special occasions now. Their absence and their appearance both speak of their hatred for the people and the popular reaction to them indicates that the feeling remains mutual. Central security forces have faced heaps of insults from Mubarak supporters outside the trial for their “treason” in aiding and abetting in the trial of the head of the state and police around Cairo refuse to enforce basic law and order beyond traffic control duties with the attitude, “didn’t you want a revolution? don’t bother us then.” The scenes that followed the protest at the Israeli embassy, with teargas, stone-throwing, and effort to charge at protesters in vans that had been set alight by molotov cocktails, I suspect sprang first and foremost from this deep animosity between the police and the people.

The violence that night set the seen for a reactivation of the emergency law which will stay in place until June 2012, but it does not aim at reinforcing basic law and order – stopping theft and other street crime – it aims at intimidating people over holding strikes and protests, as well as preventing any more aggressions against Interior Ministry offices and officers. The people still stand apart ontologically from a “state” embodied by various institutions – army, cabinet, security agencies – whose petty rivalries often give the appearance of conflict but are ultimately, and notwithstanding the intent of some individuals, on the same page. Thus the desire to create a new “party of state” to replace the NDP: there is a good chance this is what some in army/cabinet/police are hoping Badrawi’s effort will become. If it does not, the emergency situation offers scope for delaying the elections, an Islamist surge in the first vote offers possibilities for a counter-democracy manoeuvre in the name of national interest, and either a general or even an eventually-released Mubarak fils could set up their own political kiosk. For the army, it would not centre on the military council presidente Tantawi, who is old, disinterested and lacking in charisma; the man would be chief of staff Annan, popular in the ranks, relatively young and on good terms with Washington.

The fact is that the political party scene is dominated for now by forces who were almost in their entirety regarded as “irresponsible” by the Mubarak regime: the Brotherhood, the Arab nationalists and the leftists. Even the Wafd, which the government saw as a sober force that was not interested in rocking the Sadat-era deal with Washington, the “state” was never willing under Mubarak to bring into the fold in a coalition cabinet. The liberal democrats may be trustworthy for the army on the orientation-of-the-state score but lack weight, while the Brotherhood still hopes it will win favours. The military has since 1952 defined itself as the high conscience of the state, the voice in the trashy sound-and-light show at the Pyramids when the Sphinx booms out over the heads of the audience into the empty ether of the night:

“I saw the history of Egypt in its first glow, as tomorrow I shall see the East burning with a new flame. I am the fateful warden at the foot of his Lord – so faithful, so vigilant, so near him that he gave me his face for my own. I am a Pharaoh’s companion and I am he, the Pharaoh. Through the ages I received many names from the people who came to me in adoration.”

Yes, now they’re calling you names all right, like “Get out”, “The people want the fall of the General”, or “Tell Annan the revolution’s still in the Midan (square)”. Except the revolution isn’t really in the square because the people are in fact exactly where the state wants them – waiting for freedom like a handout on a plate.

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Date: Wednesday, 21. September 2011 4:19
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