Letter from Cairo

By Eric Trager
Eric Trager is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Cairo in 2006-7.

For a moment on Saturday afternoon, it seemed as though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had been ousted in a military coup. At approximately 1:30 PM, Al-Arabiya reported that a rift was developing between Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Mubarak, and many speculated that Tantawi had refused the president’s orders for the military to fire at protesters in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Then, 40 minutes later, the crowd hoisted a uniformed colonel on its shoulders and started cheering, carrying him all the way to a tank stationed in front of the Egyptian Museum. The people started chanting, “Al-shaab wal-gaysh eed wahdah” – “The people and the army are one hand” — and some wiped away tears of joy. Soaking up the adulation, the colonel mounted the tank and raised his arms victoriously.

The protesters cheered ecstatically. Like excited tourists, they began climbing tanks, posing for pictures, and hugging soldiers. One couple handed over their infant, and the soldier responded like a seasoned politician, cradling the baby in his arms and kissing it on the cheek as cameras kept flashing. Before long, practically every tank in downtown Cairo had become a platform for protesters, and they stood, perhaps 20 at a time, on top of the tanks, holding posters and screaming anti-regime slogans. The soldiers, meanwhile, smiled but said little – a brilliant move, since the crowds took it as proof that the army was on their side against Mubarak.

To be sure, there was, in fact, no coup — the army was following Mubarak’s orders. And if any rift between the military and Mubarak had emerged earlier in the day, Mubarak took important steps toward mending it when he appointed Omar Suleiman, a former general and security chief, as his vice president, and Ahmed Shafik, a former air chief of staff, as his prime minister. Yet many protesters still hoped that the military, seeing its immense popularity, would seize the moment, break with the regime, and oversee a political transition toward democracy.

But those hopes seem to be fading rather quickly among the protesters. Perhaps the best thing that the military has going for it is that it is — emphatically — not the police. The police, after all, have been the most frequent point of contact between the people and the regime, and they are famously corrupt and abusive. Operating under the Ministry of the Interior, the police include the Central Security Forces, who beat protesters all last week and blanketed Cairo in a cloud of tear gas on Friday; and State Security, which is responsible for monitoring and disrupting all political opposition activity through a vast system of informants. Meanwhile, to handle the messiest of anti-dissident jobs, the police frequently hire balpagiya — literally, gangsters, who are paid by the police to mete out punishment without dirtying the government’s hands.

It was thus hardly surprising when Friday’s protests became as much about fighting the police as they were about deposing Mubarak. The police were Mubarak’s first line of defense against his domestic opponents, and the protesters confronted them defiantly, pelting police officers with rocks, throwing tear gas canisters back in their direction, charging at them en masse, and setting their vehicles on fire. The withdrawal of the police by Friday evening seemed to signify victory. Indeed, protesters in Tahrir Square spray-painted “THE END” on an abandoned police transport vehicle.

In contrast, ordinary Egyptians have only minimal contact with the army. Their primary experience with it is in grade-school curricula and at national monuments that emphasize great military victories — and, in particular, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which Egyptians view, rather inaccurately, as a great military success against Israel. The army is thus portrayed as a proud, patriotic institution that is always on the side of the people. Even the most ardent anti-regime protesters endorse this grandiose view of the military.

Complete article via Foreign Affairs

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