Egypt opened its border with the Gaza Strip last week in a radical move that upends the 30-year-old alliance between the US, Israel and Egypt under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian foreign minister described the blockade of 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza as “disgusting”. Soon Egypt will reopen diplomatic links with Iran.
Unprecedented changes are also happening at home. Last week the Egyptian prosecutor charged former President Mubarak with the premeditated killing of protestors, corruptly accepting as a gift a palace and four villas at Sharm el-Sheikh ,and involvement in promoting a corrupt deal supplying gas to Israel. The once all-powerful Mubarak has become such a pariah that businessmen in Sharm el-Sheikh, where he once hosted world leaders, are demanding that he be moved from a hospital there because his presence is deterring tourists from visiting the resort.
But for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated in Cairo, Alexandria yesterday these developments, inconceivable at the start year, are not radical enough. Many saw the rallies and marches as the moment to launch a “Second Egyptian Revolution” to shatter the status quo. Frustrated protestors say that Egypt was a military dictatorship before the January 25 revolution and so it largely still is. Orders are handed down by the shadowy Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) without consultation or explanation. Many leading protagonists and cronies of the old regime are still in place. By contrast hundreds of pro-democracy protestors have been sentenced to five years in prison after a 30-minute trial by military tribunals. Torture continues with some female political detainees subjected to humiliating “virginity tests”. Radicals ask why they have been judged so swiftly when the prosecution is slow and subject to such long delays for members of “the Club”, the collective nickname for officials, politicians and businessmen at the heart of the Mubarak regime.
The Egyptian revolution is suffering an identity crisis. Many Egyptians wonder if there was a revolution at all or simply a military coup whereby Mubarak and his cronies were sacrificed so the rest of the Egyptian ruling class could stay in power. But, at the same time, dramatic changes are going on even if part of the reason for them is to head off a more far-reaching revolution. There is also a general recognition that the old system was rotten and dysfunctional to its core.
Egypt today is full of contradictions. Protestors in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, after being sentenced to heavy terms for continuing street protests demanding prosecution of the Mubarak family, were pleased to find that Gamel and Alaa, Mubarak’s sons, had joined them in jail. They were less pleased to find that, although one of their main demands had been met, they were not being freed.
In theory the balance of forces is heavily in favor of SCAF, but it is very sensitive to public opinion. It wants to draw a somewhat artificial distinction between the patriotic Egyptian army that refused to fire at the people in Tahrir Square, and the corrupt racketeers who ran the Mubarak police state. So far, polls show, Egyptians, particularly in the countryside, take the army at its word.
While keeping power in its hands, the military have been quick to give in to popular demands. To prevent the rallies yesterday becoming the starting pistol for a second revolution, Mubarak and his sons are to be prosecuted; many pro-democracy prisoners have been released; the Rafah border crossing has been reopened and several ministers have been jailed.
Life for most Egyptians has changed very little. For some, like the two million people involved in tourism, it has got worse because the tourists have seen scenes of violence on their televisions and are going elsewhere. Guides at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum and at the tombs and pyramids of Saqqara dolefully sit around with nothing to do or have gone home to sleep. In fact, there could hardly be a better time to visit Egypt, aside from the summer heat, because its greatest monuments can be seen without hordes of tourists getting in the way.
Corruption remains high and inescapable at all levels. One company successfully exporting marble had to go out of business because, although its trading profits were going up rapidly, they were not rising as fast as the demand for bribes by officials who sign essential permits. At a more lowly level an Italian-Egyptian tried to pass his driving test without paying a bribe. He was failed six times. At the seventh attempt his resolve failed and he let a 100 Egyptian pound note (about $20) flutter to the ground. “I think you dropped 100 pounds,” he said to the examiner who promptly replied “No, I think it was 200 pounds.” Soon after he obtained his driving license along with an appreciation as to why Egypt has a worst record for traffic accidents compared to almost anywhere in the world.
Cairo today is full of rumors because nobody knows where real power lies. A dubious newspaper article claiming that Mubarak was about to be amnestied in return for apologizing to the Egyptian provoked a howl of rage. Coptic clerics say the government has to do something about Muslim clerics claiming that Christian churches are full of weapons or, alternatively, with girls who converted from Christianity to Islam and have now been kidnapped by Copts to force them to recant.
Rumors have a political impact. For instance, heavily subsidized bottled gas for cooking has become difficult to get, leading to popular anger over stories that Israel is receiving cheap Egyptian gas thanks to a sweetheart deal corruptly arranged by Mubarak’s associates. The real explanation seems to be that businessmen find it profitable to buy up bottles of subsidized gas, most of which come from Saudi Arabia, and smuggle them to Libya and Gaza where prices are higher and they can make large profits.
Fear of violence has increased. Many households have purchased weapons. The 1.4 million police are demoralized and say they are frightened of exercising their authority because they might not be supported by their superiors. Reformers say members of the old regime are deliberately stoking violence to create nostalgia for Mubarak’s brutal police state.
“The explanation,” said one Cairene, “that anything which goes wrong in Egypt is the result of sabotage or deliberate neglect by Mubarak supporters has been used so often that it has become something of a standing joke.”
A difficulty is that nobody quite knows the extent of problems that were being covered up by the government over the last 30 years. Even something as simple as the number of road deaths is uncertain with the Interior Ministry saying they were 7,000 in one recent year, while international organizations suspect the real figure is 13,000. National statistics say that 21 per cent of the 80 million Egyptians live in poverty but economists believe the true figure may be much worse.
The military have so far been surprisingly effective in reassuring those with a stake in the status quo that nothing much will change, while insisting to the pro-democracy protestors that a new era is dawning. It is not a balancing act that can go on for ever.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq