Egypt is filled with signs of an unfinished revolution. Politics and everyday life are in a state of flux. Even the skylight high in the ceiling of the Cairo Museum, through which thieves entered at the height of the uprising, has not been mended. The robbers lowered themselves by rope and stole items discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, including a gold military trumpet. They might have taken more treasures had they not been diverted by the museum gift shop, where they looted cheap but gaudy copies of ancient Egyptian artefacts which they found more attractive than the shabbier originals.
The robbers’ confusion about what to do when they found the museum unguarded and at their disposal, is mirrored by that of government and protesters after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. All are conscious that a political earthquake has taken place, but somehow those who have misruled Egypt for decades are mostly still in place. Mubarak may have gone, but Egypt is now run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, consisting of 18 generals led by Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years.
Some in Cairo gloomily mutter “plus ça change”, or knowingly quote the famous lines from The Leopard, Lampedusa’s tale of revolution in Sicily: “everything must change so that everything can remain the same”. It is easy to see why this is cited when Egyptians see the torture of suspects continuing, along with military courts that have tried 5,000 people since the revolution, sentences often handed down after 10-minute trials. Maikel Nabil, a 26-year-old blogger, received three years for criticizing the army.
But the past week has shown how difficult it is for the army to retain political credibility in a newly politicized country unless it meets protesters’ demands. Mubarak was arrested on April 13 with his two sons, Alaa and Gamal. The army council says that sentences passed on young protesters will be reconsidered. Every time it resists change, its members equivocate and make concessions.
So far, the generals have not felt strong enough to behave otherwise, so long as they are pretending there has always been a big divide between Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorship and state institutions such as the armed forces. Of course the two were indissolubly linked and the slogan “the army and people are one”, shouted by protesters in Tahrir Square, was primarily a plea for soldiers not to shoot. The military are keen to disclaim responsibility for recent events, though many Egyptians see that it is the army that has ruled them, mostly badly, for 60 years.
The army’s convenient fiction about its role is not entirely false. It is important to grasp one significant feature of the governments now reeling under the impact of the Arab Awakening. The regimes under threat mostly started off as military dictatorships brought to power by army coups. But by the mid-1970s military regimes throughout the Arab world had evolved into police states in order to coup-proof themselves. Rulers kicked away the military ladders they had climbed to power. In Egypt, army officers retained privileges such as clubs, luxurious housing, a cut of profitable business, and effective legal immunity. But in terms of real power they lost out to the mukhabarat, as the security and intelligence services are generally called.
The pattern was the same throughout the Arab world. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was determined that nobody else was going to ride to power on the top of an army tank. After becoming president in 1979, power was concentrated in his extended family, the ferocious security services, and the Ba’ath party. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi went a step further, after his unsuccessful war in Chad in the 1980s, when he largely dissolved the Libyan army.
I have spent the past 10 days in Libya and before that I was in Egypt. The differing course of the Arab Awakening in each country is significant. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, the establishment felt it could stay in business if it let the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes go. In Cairo, there is talk of what “began as a revolution ending up in a military coup”, since it was the army that finally forced out Mubarak. In Libya, as in Syria, the regime and the state could not be divided. Disaffected members of the establishment, such as the head of Special Forces Abdul Fattah Younis and foreign minister Moussa Koussa, had to defect rather than try to replace Gaddafi from within.
Absence of a professional army in Libya means that the rebels have to rely on long-retired soldiers to train new recruits. At the 17 February Camp in Benghazi last week a grizzled former sergeant, Nuri Tawi, who had retired 22 years ago after service in Lebanon, Chad and Rwanda, was trying without much success to show several dozen young men how to load a machine gun. Gaddafi has more trained troops but not enough to take and hold cities such as Ajdabiya and Misrata.
Over the past 20 years the Arab police states became quasi-monarchies with elderly rulers seeking to hand on power to their sons. Benghazi is littered with the abandoned projects of Gaddafi’s sons, such as the palatial, almost completed Regency Hotel. Gaddafi’s regal pretensions did not prevent him insisting on study of his Green Book’s radical adages. Not surprisingly, the centre where it was studied, an attractive white crown-like structure, is burnt out. One Benghazi resident complained: “My cousin had to re-do a whole three-month term of his computer engineering course because he failed the section on the Green Book.”
The political landscape is changing in North Africa and the Middle East both within states and in their relations with the outside world. In Egypt, any new government is likely to be less close to the US and Israel. In Libya, the opposition is weak militarily, but Gaddafi is likely to go down because of the strength of Nato backing for the rebels. It is dubious if foreign domination of an oil state such as Libya will ebb away after Gaddafi and his family have gone.
The strength of the rebels in east Libya is their skill in marrying mass protest to the requirements of the media. Demonstrations in front of the town hall and elsewhere in Benghazi are much better organized than their military manoeuvers.
But there is something deeply hypocritical about the concern shown by Nato and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf over the fate of Libyan rebels, when they ignore or promote savage repression in Bahrain. The majority Shia community is being systematically disenfranchised, deprived of jobs, its parties dissolved, and its leaders arrested and tortured. In response, there is hardly a bleat out of the US or Nato whose leaders are so eager to bring democracy to Libyans. It is reasonable to regard cynically the humanitarian pretensions of foreign leaders and the reformist zeal of Egyptian generals, but radical change is already with us because tens of millions of previously apathetic people have been politicized and some of the world’s nastiest police states turned out to be more fragile than anybody expected.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘.