The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Is the end nigh?

Read Baheyya. Commentary tomorrow. Goodnight.

Update: I want to focus on one particular aspect of Baheyya's post:

For the regime to end, state security personnel must splinter and some then join the reform movement, even if secretly à la Ukraine. At the very least, a critical mass must shirk their duties and withhold their cooperation. Everyone was excited by the 1986 CSF mutiny precisely because it seemed as if the agents of repression were turning on their masters, at a time when other social forces (particularly labour) were also rebelling. But the formidable capacities of the Egyptian state effectively contained that brief upsurge, and draconian new control mechanisms were instated to prevent any second acts. If the sinews of state control remain intact and loyal to the regime, it’s difficult to imagine how the latter can be dislodged.
I don't know if the 1986 Central Security Forces mutiny (caused by the bad treatment of regular troops) is really the kind of thing that can help take down Mubarak. What is needed is the support of mid-level officers and higher-ups who have the trust of their men. And it is needed across several agencies, not just one of them. The problem with an internal coup scenario is that, unlike 1952, security agencies (and intelligence components of the military) are much more diversified and compartmentalized today. Part of their job is to keep an eye on each other. You can't just take over the Maspero radio and TV building and main roads anymore. A classic coup has become basically impossible. What remains possible is that a consensus of several groups inside the security services that other groups decide is not worth opposing.

Much has been made of the security forces’ crushing of protestors over the past few days, and at least one person has written that the culture of police brutality and impunity is itself a portent of impending chaos. However, aside from the one incident of the police beating of judge Mahmoud Hamza on 24 April, recent police brutality is nothing new. Has some invisible threshold been crossed?
The thing about what happened in the last few days, with the violence against protestors and the arrests, is that until a month ago these protests were taking place unopposed. I remember last November Kifaya walking across Downtown's streets like it was a parade. Today, mish mumkin. But, on the other hand, arrests and repression aren't exactly new. The commentary in the press, locally and abroad, that the regime is on the brink of collapse is obviously exaggerated.

What of the most inscrutable institution in Egyptian politics? There’s a lot of talk about what the military will and won’t do in X, Y, or Z event, but frankly, I don’t know how anyone can credibly claim to know anything about the potential behaviour of this institution. I don’t care how many “Western diplomats” are anonymously quoted in foreign news accounts pontificating on this matter. Nor how many informal conversations were had with “top-ranking generals” while strolling on the beach at Marina (or is it Ain al-Sukhna?). Or any of the other laughable gossip and tall tales that enliven the cocktail party functions of the foreign and local blathering classes. Some Nasserists seem to think that the valiant military will step in at just the right moment to prevent a handover of power to Gamal or to save Egypt from other nightmarish prospects. I beg to differ. If this logic holds, the military would have stepped in a long long time ago, mesh keda walla eih?

The most intriguing thesis I’ve heard (and wish I could claim credit for) is that the military no longer acts as a coherent, corporate entity. Since the Abu Ghazala affair, Hosni Mubarak has ironically presided over the comprehensive depoliticisation of the Egyptian military. Although he does not explicitly make this argument, the most astute and respected scholar of Egyptian organisations had this suggestive yet still crucial information to share on current military practices, facts that have gone strangely undiscussed. Anyone who claims that the military can still act as the final arbiter and guardian of the republic must contend with both severe lack of information and internal organisational practices that suggest quite the opposite.
That's the problem for any Egypt-watcher: we don't know. My guess would be that the military today is in such an advanced state of corruption and moral decay that it cannot be relied on. The military is the problem, not the solution.

Although, as Baheyya stresses, most writing on the inner workings of the military and the security services is essentially speculation based on hearsay, indulge me for a second. In my opinion, the most interesting service to watch these days is State Security (Amn ad-Dowla). It has become universally reviled for leading the crackdown against dissidents and its growing intrusion into the daily lives of ordinary Egyptians. It is really the most hated of all services -- you can't hold that much of a grudge against the miserable Central Security goons that, most often, are following orders from State Security (as those of us who went out to the countryside for the parliamentary elections could plainly see.) There is still respect for general security and the military (even if it's misplaced.)

Detainees Protest-000005

I took the picture above last October at a protest by the families of Islamist political detainees. It was outside the seat of State Security, at the ministry of interior's imposing building on Lazoughly Street. The protesters were chanting "amn al dowla, kelb al dowla" (State Security, Dogs of the State.) Before last year's political uproar, this kind of thing would have been unthinkable. I asked around some well-connected sources about this a few months later, and piecing together their testimony, I got the following impression: there is mounting unhappiness about the current state of affairs among State Security officers. These people, who saw themselves at the forefront of the struggle against terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, now feel that they are merely being used to prop up the Mubaraks -- in other words, that they have gone from being servants of the state to merely servants of dictator on his last throes.

The interesting thing is that, in parallel with this feeling, State Security has become in the past year the service that is receiving the most bonuses. Even compared to the military, State Security officers are now receiving more of the little things that make the civil service (and security especially) appealing: discounts on loans for homes and cars, better social facilities, etc. According to these sources, the regime wants to make sure it retains the loyalty of State Security most of all, because they are the Swiss Army knife of repression. The question is, how long will they be willing to play that role?