Egypt's raids on NGOs

Note: this post was written yesterday. I understand the US NGOs have had their property returned after the intervention of the US government.

I'm away from Cairo at the moment, so apart from a few panicked SMSs from friends and the coverage on Twitter I have not really followed yesterday's raids on six NGOs by the Egyptian police. Links for reported stories on what happened are at the bottom of the post. I want here only to give my own interpretation of what's happening.

Such a course of action was a possibility, of course, since last September or so when investigations into NGOs that receive foreign funding were initiated by SCAF, Minister of State for International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga and the ministry of justice. The fight over NGOs, and the fact that the Egyptian government seemed to be mostly drawing attention to Western-funded NGOs rather than Gulf-funded Islamic charities, is a manufactured crisis created to use as a card against Western, and more specifically US, pressure on the Egyptian government.

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An Egyptian army officer's tale

From testimony from an Egyptian military officer, published by Jack Shenker in the Guardian: Egyptian army officer's diary of military life in a revolution:

After Mubarak fell and the rule of Scaf (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) began, the top brass moved quickly to secure the loyalty of all mid-level and junior officers. Whenever a big Friday street demonstration or rally in Tahrir Square took place we would all receive a bonus of between 250 and 500 Egyptian pounds (£26-52), whether or not we had anything to do with policing the protests.

It's ridiculous; at the height of the unrest reserve officer salaries doubled and everyone was getting huge bonuses all the time (an average of 2,400 pounds – £254 – for me in January and February). Most full-time officers didn't really care what was happening politically on the streets, they were just happy with the extra money. Occasionally though you'd hear guilty jokes about how we were the only people who were benefiting from the revolution and the Egyptian people had been screwed over.

 Read the whole thing, it's very enlightening although not altogether surprising. This is how it ends:

But as the months went on, despite this ignorance and the generous bonus system, dissent against [Egypt's commander-in-chief and current head of Scaf, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi has grown. Most of the mid-level officers now think of him as Mubarak's right-hand man, and they hate the fact that Scaf's violence has tarnished the army's image in the eyes of the public. Many still disapprove of the current protests because they feel it's not the right time, and also because they're resentful that others can go and demonstrate on the streets when they themselves do not have such freedom. But that attitude is beginning to change, especially as independent TV channels have been airing video clips of the recent violence and the brutality of the security forces is being openly discussed by people like [prominent media personalities] Yosri Fouda and Ibrahim Eissa. More and more mid-level officers are turning against Scaf, and against Tantawi."

In Translation: Egypt's deep state

This week’s translation comes from al-Tahrir, the newspaper edited by Ibrahim Eissa that is among the most critical publications of SCAF and the security services to come out since the January uprising. The writer of this column is Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, a former high-level Egyptian diplomat who has woked on the Middle East peace process and in Sudan in various capacities, both for his country and the United Nations. He is also a novelist — his latest book has just been shortlisted for the Arabic Booker — and teaches International Relations at the American University in Cairo. His website is here. We previously feature Ezzedine (a friend of ours) in this hilarious video, in which he berates state television by introducing them to the concept of remote controls.

This column echoes a lot of my own thinking about recent events, notably hinting at a trend within the Egyptian deep state that is seeking to re-establish itself, manipulating politics (including the elections) and pushing SCAF towards confrontation and state media towards incitation against the revolutionary movement. This is a worrying development, even perhaps raising a question about whether one hand of the state knows what what the other is doing.

As always, we rely on the fantastic Arabic translation services of our partner, Industry Arabic. If you need anything translated from Arabic — a technical or legal document, a media article, a report — check them out.

Goodbye to Military Rule

By Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, al-Tahrir, 20 December 2011

The coup-makers who dragged the Military Council into adopting the approach of the State Security Investigations Service (SSI) in the way it handles revolutionary forces have damaged the Military Council, the image of the army and the army’s status in the new political order.

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More denial

This video is a prime example of the excruciating debates we're seeing on Egyptian TV recently. The guest on this show is insisting to the presenter that the army would never shoot at crowds, despite video evidence, claims Sheikh Emad Effat was shot at close range and then is challenged by a coroner's report saying he was shot at a distance and from a height (possibly indicating a sniper). Despite being contradicted with evidence at every turn, he keeps on rambling about the army as protector of the nation, etc., and that the allegations against it are therefore impossible.

It's rather typical, unfortunately, of the SCAF's worldview and that of some establishment figures: the army can do no wrong, therefore the army has not done anything wrong. What we're witnessing is an entire mental edifice of denial and excuses crumbling down. Great that this presenter gave him a tough time — on state TV, they often just nod along in agreement.

Previously:  Egypt, still the land of denial

Egypt: anti-SCAF activists kidnapped, beaten

I have been hearing of several instances of this in the last few days:

On Friday December 9th ,2011 I was kidnapped , assaulted and dumped on the highway for no apparent reason other than being a member of the No military trials for civilians group...

After he was beaten and mollested his captors only took the phone used for the No To Military Trials campaign, nothing else.

Read the rest of Zeyad Salem's site and the No To Military Trial campaign website

Are there rebels in the Egyptian military?

In light of the Springborg Affair — the above video offers some insight into the thinking of the rebel military officers that made an appearance at Tahrir Square and the wider question of the relationship between SCAF and the rank-and-file. In his editorial that caused issue number two of Egypt Independent to be banned (it also carried my op-ed on Kamal Ganzouri), Robert Springborg (a leading expert on the Egyptian military) wrote that there was mounting resentment of Field Marshall Tantawy. The Index of Censorship has more details:

The article, entitled “Is Tantawi reading the public pulse correctly?”, said that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who leads Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), could share the same fate as former president Hosni Mubarak and find himself in jail as a result of popular discontent with his management of the revolution’s transition process.

“Many in the military resent the reputation of their institution being abused by the Field Marshal and his 19 colleagues on the SCAF … the present rumblings of discontent among junior officers, Chief of Staff General Sami Anan’s greater popularity than the Field Marshal in the military and among Egyptians as a whole, and intensified pressure from the US could all result in the Field Marshal sharing President Mubarak’s fate,” Dr Springborg wrote in the
original version of the article.

Dr Springborg concluded by saying that “discontented officers not in the SCAF might decide that a coup within the coup would be the best way to save the honour of the country and their institution.”

The video above is striking not only because the officer interviewed suggests there is widespread frustration in the ranks of the military, but even makes positive mentions of the rebel Syrian army.

SCAF, parliament and the next constitution

I was away from Egypt for the last few days and I missed yesterday's big event: a SCAF representative invited nine foreign correspondents in what clearly was an attempt to send a message (to the US in particular) that the incoming parliament would not get to ride roughshod over the rest of the transition period, including the writing of the next constitution.

One might note several things at this juncture:

  • The oddness of making this important statement — the drawing of a red line — to foreigners rather than Egyptian politicians or even the Egyptian public;
  • That the SCAF has chosen to make this statement indirectly suggests it does not feel confident for a direct confrontation (as over the "supra-constitutional principles") and prefers sending signals at this state;
  • That this is happening as the new government and its "council of advisors" is being composed, with this council being given powers to guide the appointment of the members of the constituent assembly (a further distancing of SCAF from direct implication in this issue after the failure of the "principles")
  • The nonsensical nature of what was said — particularly the idea that the elected parliament does not represent Egyptian society, with the implication that the unelected SCAF does represent that society;
  • The dueling constitutional challenges of the next few months: on the one hand, parliament seems to have the right to appoint the constituent assembly, but SCAF wants to guide the process; and on the other, SCAF seems to have the right to appoint the government, but the incoming parliament (and Tahrir) want to have a voice in that.

I've been thinking of what the larger meaning of these elections and the recent unrest in Tahrir is, and I would venture that together these mean the beginning of an end for the 1952 regime and a transformation of Egyptian politics that will be deep and meaningful:

  • The Tahrir (and elsewhere) protests and Tantawi's speech showed for the umpteenth time that SCAF will capitulate to public pressure and that they lack self-confidence. It also showed that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the SCAF's management of the transition, whether or not most people want Tantawi out or not.
  • The elections showed that the military's political class (what was the tanzim tali3i) has collapsed and the generals no longer have an interface to manage the country, as they did through the NDP and before it the ASU. The failure of the felool, in particular, is telling of this.

To me, whether or not the Muslim Brothers, as many fear, decide to collaborate with the SCAF for a few years is irrelevant: the military regime is over, its legitimacy spent (even if there is still much respect for the institution) and the generals' power will decline as civilian rule returns. It might take time, but I would venture that short of a new coup led by charismatic officers, the era of the generals is over. They simply don't have the competence, leadership or the "will to power" to rejuvenate and relaunch the Free Officers' regime.

Below are excerpts from several pieces reporting on the meeting, or touching on the wider issue of the SCAF-parliament relationship and the military's role in politics.

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Egyptian rights groups call for indictment of senior police and military officials

This is a major taboo being broken, with the call of for the indictment of the head of the Central Command, General Ruweini (considered third most powerful person on SCAF) and the head of the military police:

Five human rights organizations said today that the past three days' brutal attacks on demonstrators, carried out by the Interior Ministry's security forces and military police forces under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailiya, Assyut, and other cities, constitute criminal offences. These offences are without a statute of limitations and the perpetrators and instigators must be brought before criminal trials.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, El-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information pledged to continue to identify the civilian and military officials involved in killing demonstrators, bursting their eyes and breaking their bones and skulls. These crimes have been extensively documented by these organizations and by the media over the past few days.

The signatory organizations stated that the list of officials it plans to prosecute so far includes: General Mansour al-Essawi, Minister of the Interior; General Sami Sidhom, Assistant Interior Minister for the Security Sector; General Emad al-Din al-Wakil, Assistant Interior Minister for the Central Security Forces; General Hamdy Badeen, head of the military police; and General Hasan al-Ruwaini, commander of the central military district. This is in addition to other civilian and military officials in a number of other cities which have seen similar criminal offences against demonstrators.

Here's the full press release.

Tahrir: what next?

So, the Field Marshall has given his speech, and lo and behold, it was a dull speech that did not offer a clear way to pacify the crowds in Tahrir. It did make a significant concession, to be sure, in a quick mention that the SCAF was willing to hold the presidential elections by July. That should have been its centerpiece. It would have been better if announced by a credible new cabinet, or at least PM,who said there was real independence. And if it has offered a head or two to the angry crowds for the last few days' violence.

I went down to the area where the fighting is taking place today and I have an uncomfortable take on it: it's that the fighting is being sustained by the protestors, not by the police, who right now appear satisfied with holding the line to prevent the protests from reaching the Interior Ministry at Lazoughly Street. They may be violent, but they are not on the offensive, even if many protestors think they are preventing them from returning to the square. They are paying for the excessive force they used over the weekend. 

More than that, there is this ambience of martyrdom. Everyone is excited and wants to participate, to get their chance to be a hero. People are angry — and they have a right to be. But right now it's an open-ended process, and the crowds want the satisfaction of achieving what did they in January: to see the man in their sights fall.

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Finally, an Egyptian transition plan that makes sense

This idea has been around for a while, but finally some influential people are proposing something concrete:

A number of political forces and intellectuals have prepared a lengthy memorandum that includes a drastically reformed plan for the remainder of Egypt's transitional period.

Al-Masry Al-Youm has obtained a copy of the document, which the drafters said they will submit to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) within days.

The memorandum suggests postponing parliamentary elections, and in their place forming a "national rescue cabinet," having Egyptians elect a constituent assembly to draft the new constitution, holding presidential elections and fully transferring power to a civilian government. After all this, the memorandum reads, parliamentary elections should be held in accordance with the laws set out in the new constitution.

Among those involved in drafting the memorandum were former President of the Democratic Front Party Osama al-Ghazaly Harb, presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, Coordinator of the National Association for Change Abdel Galil Mostafa, writer Alaa al-Aswany and journalist Sakina Fouad.

The planning of the current elections are an embarassment to Egypt, and they should be postponed to allow for better preparation (think that by some calculations if the participation is the same as the referendum voters will only get 1 minute each to cast their ballot). The only reason to hold parliamentary elections now is to cut short the part of the transition period that is directed by SCAF. This plan presents a reasonable compromise.

Such an initiative should have been put on the table a long time ago, and it will now be difficult to stop the campaigning that has started. I don't think it has much chance of succeeding, but the basic recipe — civilian control now, SCAF restricted to national security, and a constitution first so you can set up a proper system (and for instance get rid of the pointless Shura Council). The key will be convincing political forces, notably Islamist, that have banked on elections now to move the transition process as fast as possible.

Should the US cut its aid to Egypt?

With the Maspero massacre, the widespread use of military tribunals, high-profile detentions like that of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mikael Nabil, and its apparent attempts to rig the next constitution, Egypt's current military junta isw not looking good to anyone, inside Egypt or outside. But to both, it also looks like the only choice, the devil you have to deal with. This ambivalence has now revived that old problem of US-Egypt relations in the Mubarak era, Washington's acute clientitis problem: you're stuck with a client regime you don't like, but have little alternative but to continue because of a set of related policy questions.

This was the reason that for years aid continued to flow to Egypt, despite some congressional opposition, even at the nadir of the relationship between the Bush administration and the Mubarak regime. Oddly, both the criticism of aid to Egypt in Congress and support for it in the administration has largely been about Israel. On the one hand, congresspeople wanted to pressure Egypt to do more on the Gaza/Hamas issue, and on the other the administration did not want to sever military aid it views as underwriting the trilateral relationship created by Camp David. A secondary concern was the late Mubarak regime's autocratic turn and, now, SCAF's increasingly autocratic and incompetent leadership.

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Alaa al-Aswany on the people who run things

The Egypt Report has translated a recent piece by Alaa al-Aswany in which he imagines a conversation between two senior officials (you can imagine what four-letter acronym they might be a part of). Depressing reading — and you get a better idea of who the two might be at the end.

1: And what ever became of the boy in Tora Prison?

2: Well, the boy’s name is Essam Atta. He had been serving a two-year sentence after being convicted in a military trial. It seems that he smuggled a mobile SIM card inside the prison. He then spoke out to an officer in an annoying way, so the officer put some pressure on him on in order to teach him a lesson. The boy couldn’t endure it, and he died.

1: Be careful, this might become a big case like the Khaled Said case.

2: Rest assured, we’re making our account of the incident perfect. All the relevant agencies have decisive evidence to prove that the boy swallowed a packet of drugs and died as a result of a drop in blood pressure.

1: Fine, but the reports of Khaled Said said the same thing, and the whole world went crazy.

2: But the world can’t go crazy right now. The people are exhausted, and have become satisfied with anything we do.

1: But if the people are satisfied, why did they rise up and rebel against our legitimacy? Do you actually believe that to this day I don’t understand what happened during the events of last January?

2: Well, your Excellency, I hope you can accept one observation from your student. The reason behind the events of last January was that the security apparatus got it wrong. It allowed the people to gather together, having confidence in its ability to break them up by force. The important thing now is that from the outset we don’t let them gather together. We now are focused on violent preemptive actions in order to prevent demonstrations from even starting.

1: Yeah, we should have hit them stronger. We were mistaken. We thought the Egyptians were all just simple people. I never imagined they could have done something like that.

2: The people are simple, sir.  The problem lies in the children on Facebook, they like stirring up problems among the people.

1: These are agents, traitors, only looking to sabotage the country

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SCAF's priority: flags and sharks

Confidence is not what I feel when I read this type of item (admitedly in the pretty dire Youm al-Seba3):

Member Egypt’s ruling military council Mohsen Al-Fangary said the parliamentary and Shura Council elections will be held on schedule and both the Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian army will participate to perform these elections to make them successful.

"Egypt will be a civilian country with a strong elected parliament," al-Fangary said, who called on citizens to choose the candidates wisely.

He made this statement during his inspection to the Ministry of Interior group in Jazeera youth center headquarters, while celebrating the tallest flag of Egypt.

Al-Fangary showed an invention from the military council, a device to ward off sharks. The invention was invented in coordination with the Ministry of Tourism, since sharks attacked many tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh city.

What next? Will Tantawi unveil Zagazig's largest ball of twine and Anan launch the production tinfoil-lined helmets to protect soldiers from the mind-control rays of foreign hands?