A BLOG BY THE EDITOR OF THE MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL
Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context
Egyptian Armed Forces Day is currently celebrated on October 6, the anniversary of the Army's proudest moment, al-‘Ubur
(the Crossing): the crossing of the Suez Canal and attack on the Bar-Lev line in 1973.
If the Army announcement of today
holds firm, January 31 may deserve to be celebrated as al-‘ubur al-thani, the second great Crossing. Crowds were chanting, "the Army and the People are one."
The Man Who Never Speaks, Speaks
Vice President ‘Omar Suleiman has gone on Egyptian TV to say that he has been entrusted to begin negotiations with the opposition in the next days. The man whose face never appeared in newspapers till a few years ago is now the apparent face of the government, as Mubarak remains wherever he may be. (Sharm al-Sheikh?, surrounded by those troops the Israelis approved deploying?
Combined with the Army statement, I suspect the beginning of a transition, in which General Suleiman and perhaps the Army command discuss with the opposition's representatives what comes next.
I don't think Suleiman would be accepted by the opposition as a long-term leader, but as someone the Army would trust he could be used to usher in a transition.
If not the beginning of the end, at least, to steal from Churchill, also addressing an Egyptian subject (El Alamein), today's events may be the end of the beginning.
But tomorrow may be tense. Amid talk of a huge demonstration assembling from all over the country tomorrow, the government has halted train service throughout Egypt. After shutting down the Internet, the phones (now back), the banks (and the ATMs are out too, perhaps due to the Internet), Egypt has now committed itself to guaranteeing
the trains won't run on time.
The Egyptian Army at Crunchtime
The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.
While warning against acts of sabotage and terrorism, the Army statement reaffirmed that freedom of expression is everyone's right.
Coming as it does amid many rumors of an imminent crackdown — tanks blocking access to Midan Tahrir, concrete barricades going up — the Army seems to be trying to reassure the demonstrators. Of course, it isn't clear who is speaking for the Army from the reports so far.
It could, of course, be misreported, and indeed one can argue about its meaning, but it would appear to reassure Tahrir will not become Tienanmen.
And if that's the case, Husni Mubarak probably should start planning a graceful exit before he has a Ben Ali-style search for an airport that would let him land.
It isn't exactly "Communique Number One," the traditional announcement of a military coup, but it may someday be seen as the turning point of this crisis.
In the 1980s I dealt with the Egyptian Army quite a bit, and will have a lot more to say on the subject. For now, I'm struck by the fact that in most of the radio and press interviews I've done the past few days, I've been asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems to be the focus of many American reporters. The Army is by far the more important player, at least at this crunch moment, and perhaps the likely bridging institution for a transition of power.
And now such a scenario seems even more likely. The Army has chosen not too sully the high regard Egyptians have for it (and perhaps keeping $1.3 billion in US military aid was also a motive). The 35,000 Tunisian Armed Forces managed to midwife the departure of Ben Ali. Egypt's Armed Forces, some 450,000 strong and the world's tenth largest active force, were always critical to the outcome here. If this is really their position, things could move quickly now.
Israel Allows Egyptian Troop Increase in Sinai
Israel has agreed to allow an additional 800 Egyptian troops to deploy in Sinai
, in addition to those previously allowed near the borders of Gaza. Under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Sinai is demilitarized.
Press reports say the new troops will be deployed around the resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh in the south.
I am sure it is a total coincidence
that many Egyptians assume Husni Mubarak is in his palace in Sharm al-Sheikh and that his televised appearances are coming from there.
The high drama of last Friday seems to have been replaced with a sort of continuing tension as the two sides in Egypt are eyeball to eyeball waiting for someone to blink. I think so far I'd read today as a day of mixed signals. The return of police to the streets seems to have been well handled: they deployed the traffic police, a whole different matter than the Central Security Forces. It provides a presence, but not a confrontational one. Meanwhile, the spread of the neighborhood committees may be the real revolutionary movement, since locals providing their own security are, in effect, creating government from below.
The new Cabinet isn't all that new, the major development there being the replacement of Interior Minister Habib al-Adly with Mahmoud Wagdi. Reports I've seen say he once headed the Prison Bureau, which doesn't make him sound very much of a reformer, but he's said to have had a falling-out with Adly, so the President may consider him a symbol of change, though I doubt the demonstrators will agree.
A commenter noted yesterday the potential importance of the decision by many Azhar faculty, key judges, and other prominent representatives of civil society to join the demonstrators in Tahrir, further broadening support for the protests. In fact, I gather many Egyptian celebrities — sports stars, TV personalities, etc. — are now showing up. Midan al-Tahrir is the place to be. That is a sign that many pillars of Egyptian society are now joining what they may see as the right side of history, or at least the one likely to win.
Meanwhile, the government crackdown on Al Jazeera led to the confiscation of their cameras and arrest of six journalists, though the six have now been released. Al Jazeera English for the past couple of days has been talking to their reporters without naming them, for safety reasons. Both their Arabic and English services are reporting thoroughly despite the difficulties. So, once again, the live-streaming Al Jazeera English coverage:
SUNDAY, JANUARY 30, 2011
A Strange Day
How to sum up today in Egypt? Although the news channels are full of wall-to-wall coverage, not a lot is really clear at the end of the day. The government did not name the new Cabinet, though the Defense Minister appeared on TV. The Army beefed up its presence but did not crack down on the protesters. Yet two F-16s buzzed Central Cairo as the curfew began: what does that mean?
I suspect there are divisions in he leadership about what to do next. The Army does not want to jeopardize its reputation with the people, but if ordered to crack down hard, would it obey? I'm not sure anyone knows. Tomorrow may explain what's been going on.
Mohamed ElBaradei made his move today, and he and a number of respected dissidents were set up as a committee to try to negotiate a transitional unity government — if they can find anyone to talk to them. Still, at least there are faces who can provide a responsible transition. I'm not sure ElBaradei has the fire in him to lead a new government, but as one of Egypt's more experienced diplomats,he could help negotiate a transition.
The longer this goes on, the more likely I fear the hopes for a peaceful transition will fade: and then the choice becomes stark: either the government goes peacefully or we face the danger of Tahrir Square looking like Tienanmen Square. Or, the Army refuses an order and we have the Tunisian situation, which could be the best outcome.
One thing the government may have miscalculated (well, one of many): if the withdrawal of the police was intended to create anarchy and lead most Egyptians to beg for the government to come back, the resourcefulness of Egyptians in creating neighborhood committees and patrolling their neighborhoods (at least in Alexandria there are now said to be popular committees covering the whole city) has shown them something they may not have realized before: they can organize their own government services if needed. That could be the most important lesson of all.
Again: Al Jazeera English Streaming Feed
I won't be up this early and I'll be in and out today (Sunday) so I'm setting up a pre-scheduled post once again linking to Al Jazeera English's streaming video. If like me you don't get Al Jazeera English on cable I want to make available this running commentary, despite Egypt's crackdown on them. I'll check in through the day as I can. A long scheduled gathering today associated with my wife's birthday last week may mean I won't be able to post instantly, but I should still be able to check in.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English:
Was it Something I Said?
Traffic in January, not counting RSS feeds:
Thank you. Please tell your friends. Or better still, link, Tweet, or Facebook.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 29, 2011
Army Protects Protesters from Police
I heard several reports about this but just found the video. Riot police are moving towards demonstrators. Three Army APCs move in front of the protesters. As the protesters surge around them, the soldiers escort them behind the line of APCs. The Army protects the protesters from the police.
I'm pretty sure those are US provided M-113s. With all the publicity given to the "Made in USA" teargas canisters, this makes me a little happier about my tax dollars at work.
Remembering Egypt's Revolution of 1919
A little while ago on CNN Shibley Telhami noted that this uprising in Egypt is much more of a revolution than the so-called "Revolution of 1952," essentially a military coup by the Free Officers
. The rioting on "Black Saturday" that year was more revolutionary
, and — has anyone noted this? — Black Saturday was on January 26, while the current uprising started January 25!
But that's not my point here. A much better model for what we are seeing now is what Egyptians have always called the "Revolution of 1919" (thawra 1919)
, though many English histories follow the British colonial usage and call it an uprising. Like 2011, 1919 had no clear leadership and was largely a genuine popular uprising. It had its own flag, with the crescent and the cross to show both Muslims and Copts supported it, a symbol which the Wafd continued to use and which I've seen a variant of in at least one crowd scene in the past few days.
Saad (Sa‘d) Zaghloul, right, whose return to Egypt from exile in 1923 was the subject of my first Weekend Historical Video
post, was the indirect cause; when the British exiled him and the Wafd Party leadership to Malta to prevent their participation in the Paris Peace Conference, Egyptians (and Sudanese) rose against British rule. Students, workers, religious figures and others rose in protest, and in the countryside there were bloody attacks against British facilities, troop trains, and individuals.
The British responded to the bloodshed, which lasted for months, by replacing High Commissioner Reginald Wingate with a military hero, Field Marshal Viscount Allenby, and sending an investigating commission under Lord Milner to study the situation. Though British accounts tend to see the rising as having eventually been put down, Egyptians note that the Milner Commission recommended an end to the Protectorate and thus the revolt led directly to the British declaring Egypt independent in 1922.
It was a limited independence; Britain retained troops in the Canal Zone and the right to deploy them elsewhere in wartime (as they did in World War II during the North African campaign). Sudan was made an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. But Zaghloul returned from exile and the Wafd swept to power.
The 1919 Revolution is little remembered today outside of Egypt, but it is probably a much better analog of the current uprising than the military coups of Ahmad ‘Orabi in 1881
or the Free Officers of 1952.
Note too that in both the pictures shown here (other than Zaghloul and the flag), women, though veiled, are highly visible.
Qifa Nabki Explains What Mubarak is Thinking
Rearranging Deck Chairs or Preparing a Transition?
I can think of two possible readings of the ‘Omar Suleiman appointment as Vice President of Egypt, the first Mubarak has named. The obvious one is that he sought to reassure about the succession (and deep six the Gamal Mubarak idea), but in the present context that seems like the proverbial rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The more optimistic reading is that Mubarak named Suleiman to give himself time to get out the door; to arrange a smooth transition to someone the Army knows and trusts, but who in turn could preside over the transition to some sort of coalition government to prepare for new elections.
I said it was an optimistic reading. So far, Mubarak doesn't seem to get what's happening. Someone tweeted yesterday, citing Ben Ali's "I have understood you" speech, that Mubarak's speech was more, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you? Could you say it again?"
Tomorrow may see the naming of the new Cabinet, which could give us a clue as to whether Mubarak might move towards a transition, or whether he still doesn't get it.
A couple of quick thoughts, with more to come later:
‘Omar Suleiman as Vice President (sorry, Gamal) and Ahmad Shafiq as Prime Minister would have been daring moves if made, say, on Monday. It finally offers a vision of potential successors who aren't named Mubarak.
But Suleiman's role as head of General Intelligence may make him too suspect after all that has happened. (Though General Intelligence has never been as intrusive in the life of the average citizen as the dreaded State Security.)His age and his health are also issues as far as succession goes.
Ahmad Shafiq is a respected former head of the Air Force (and more recently Civil Aviation Minister). But the Air Force is Mubarak's old service. Again, these moves made sooner might have forestalled the revolt. But made now, they may be too little, too late.
Crowds tried to storm the Interior Ministry in the Lazoghly neighborhood. Home base of State Security, "Lazoghly," as it's sometimes known, is the Bastille of this revolt.
I'll have more comments later.
Al Jazeera English Streaming Live
Al Jazeera English is Streaming Live and making the code available:
This, I think, is your Weekend Historical Video
this weekend. Let's watch it in the rough.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 28, 2011
Misr Umm al-Dunya
Perhaps the most reassuring story of a hectic day: when the burning NDP building fire threatened to spread to the nearby Egyptian Museum, and suspected looters were also reported in the area, the protesters themselves protected the museum
with its irreplaceable riches, until the Army could secure it. Egyptians are proud of their heritage, just not their government. King Tut is secure for now; it's the more recent pharaoh who's in hot water.
Who Won the Battle of Cairo? Some Scenarios
Who won today's running confrontations? Clearly, the demonstrators believe they did. Clearly too, the police and Central Security Forces lost. The Army had to enter Cairo for the first time since 1986, and downtown for the first time since 1977. Exactly what the current dynamic is isn't clear, because no one knows if the Army will be used against the demonstrators. It apparently did little to protect the NDP headquarters, taking up positions at the Foreign Ministry and the Radio/TV building, both close by. Mubarak's decision to hang tough means we need to watch a bit more.
At this point I can think of several scenarios by which this could play out:
Scenario One: Confrontations Ease, but Continue. Saturday is a work day. People may be unwilling to confront the Army, as opposed to the hated police. Mubarak hangs tough, demonstrations persist. This has often been the Egyptian model in the past. But the simmering pot has boiled over, and it's going to be hard to take it off a boil.
Scenario Two: The Tunisian Model: The Confrontations Escalate, the Army Won't Fire on Demonstrators; Mubarak Goes. The Tunisian scenario, in other words. Should this happen, then the Middle East may be repeating Eastern Europe in 1989. Tunisia was Poland, but Egypt would be the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Scenario Three: The Tienanmen Model: The Confrontations Escalate; The Army and/or the Police Do a Tienanmen. Blood in the streets; an uncertain future. A poke in the eye for Obama. The opposition could radicalize.
Scenario Four: The Russian (1917 or 1991) Model: The Conscript Army Refuses to Shoot Their Contemporaries. A variant of number two. The rank and file of the Army, the regime's last line of defense, changes sides rather than shoot their brothers and sisters down.
Scenario Five: The Officer Corps Says No, It's Time for You to Go. Another variant of Number Two. The Egyptian bargain, established by Sadat and continued by Mubarak, gave the Army huge economic perks (including manufacturing of appliances, not just weapons, and control over certain imports) in exchange for staying out of politics while backing up the regime. As Mubarak seems less and less viable, the Army Officer Corps might calculate that the only way to maintain the system is to put the Captain over the side.
Scenario Six: Mubarak Recognizes Reality. This is the Only if You're on Drugs Model: Mubarak goes on TV, says, "Hey, I'm 83 and ailing and after 30 years you need a change. Nobody wants my boring son, so we'll just let you figure out what comes next." I wish.
Hanging Tough: Mubarak Holds On
So it was Mubarak rather than Fathi Sorour. He's hanging tough, brazening it out, talking about the rule of law and promising a better future. He's dismissed the government (the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, mostly technocrats, though presumably including the hated Interior Minister), and will name a new one tomorrow.
I think the situation is so volatile that I fear this is not going to stop the demonstrators. Unless he names a really broad government. They've routed the police and felt the taste of victory. The Army's role is still ambiguous. At the very least he can't reappoint Habib al-Adly as Interior Minister, but even ditching him may not be enough.
There's so much of this dynamic we don't know. Where did the police disappear to? Did they just go home, or are they waiting in the wings for a final sweep if the Army doesn't do it? Where was Mubarak all day? For that matter, where is he now? Sharm al-Sheikh or Cairo?
I'll stay on this through the weekend, but with some family breaks.
A Sense of Something About to Happen
Fathi Sorour, the Speaker of the Egyptian People's Assembly, is reportedly about to make an address.
Fathi Sorour would be Acting President if the Presidency Became Vacant. Something is about to happen.
A Moment for Caution
Right now I'm trying, like everyone else, to figure out what's going on. Where is Mubarak? What is the Army doing? Who's in charge here? Where is Field Marshal Tantawi? (Some are claiming he's in Washington. [It was the Chief of Staff instead.]) There are wild rumors (the Israeli embassy has been evacuated, the Egyptian Museum is being looted) which suggest wild speculation. I've told several reporters who've called that I hesitate to shoot at a moving target. I know the 24/7 news game requires constant commentary, but I'm tired of CNN saying the demonstrators are "defying the curfew." Heck, the whole demonstration violates the Interior Ministry ban on gatherings. Also too much attention to where ElBaradei is. And I've long since given up on TV figuring out the difference between an APC and a tank, or between a police van and an APC. I'll give you a fuller take when more information is available. Meanwhile any brief thoughts will go directly to the MEI Twitter account, @MiddleEastInst.
What Will the Army Do?
I've been watching a live CNN feed from the corniche, where an Army APC (something in the Russian BRDM family I think) is being surrounded by demonstrators who seem to be cheering the Army. The traditional respect Egyptians accord the Army seems to be in evidence. But whereas the Central Security Forces were cracking down hard, the Army seems to be fraternizing. The Army high command is docile, but the Army has always been the ultimate guarantor of the regime, and if the senior officer corps ever feels that the only way to save the system is to change the leadership, they have the ability to do it.
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Michael Collins Dunn, PhD, is the Editor of the Middle East Journal, published since 1947 by The Middle East Institute in Washington DC. While this is an MEI website, all opinions he expresses here are his own, not the Middle East Institute's, which does not take positions on policy issues. All comments express the opinion of the commenter, not those of the Middle East Institute or of the blogger.