The Counter Revolution Fails

The Egyptian Revolution crosses a historic landmark, with massive implications for the world. The history of revolutions is as full of counter-revolutions as revolutions and commentators were confident in warning that somebody somewhere will definitely be ‘stealing the revolution’ in Egypt (Al-Jazeera commentary). Maneuvering and politicking saw Senators and Prime Ministers visit Taḥrīr Square and drive on to talk with the country’s new caretakers. A new law was mooted to ban demonstrations and strikes. Israel and Saudi Arabian leaders lobbied hard for the return of Mubarak, who was planning to return to power from his compound in Sharm el-Sheikh. That was the purpose of his speech on April 10th when he pleaded poverty in a speech broadcast on Al-Arabiyya TV. As far as he was concerned according to the speech he had no more savings than an average Egyptian businessman, and claimed he certainly had no assets abroad. When the incensed directors of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina responded immediately by demanding the return of $145m taken from funds donated to them by the European Union stolen by Suzanne Mubarak, the new facade immediately crumbled, as previous facades had done immediately after his two other major speeches since the beginning of the revolution.

Reports from Al-Goma’a newspaper had Mubarak and his entourage trying to flee to Saudi Arabia on the following day, April 11th. Sharm el-Sheikh Air Traffic control advised the military authorities of a plan being lodged with them for a helicopter flight from Mubarak’s compound to Riyadh. The flight was disallowed, several attorneys general subsequently visited Mubarak on April 12th and he was arrested on April 13th even though he suffered a minor heart attack and was hospitalised.

But let us start from the beginning. On Tuesday 25 January 2011 – the Day of Anger and Uprising [yawm al-ġaḍab wa al-‘intifāḍa]– the revolution began in Taḥrīr Square. There followed a crackdown which involved the shutdown of the internet and mobile phone networks, attacks by covert police, police snipers on rooftops, and hired thugs, as well as wholesale looting by further hired thugs targeting various residential neighbourhoods to simulate a total breakdown of law and order – a tactic intended both to instil fear and drive protesters back to their homes and provide justification for potential further crackdowns. The people responded in their millions with massive rallies on Friday 28 January – the Friday of Anger [ǧumʿat al-ġaḍab] – The call went out and the message that was read from the Qur’an said:  Think not that Allah doesn’t heed the deeds of those who do wrong. He merely gives them respite against the day when their eyes will stare fixedly in horror [at the consequences of their actions](14:42); meanwhile the call continued for the ‘fall of the régime’ [al-sha‘ab yurīd isqāṭ al-niẓām]. Mubarak – oblivious to the true nature of the events – appoints a hated figure, Omar Suleiman, head of intelligence (and personal friend since he saved his life in an attempt on Mubarak’s life in Addis Ababa in 1995) as Vice President, and hopes that a simple Cabinet reshuffle will quell the revolution. Another confidant of Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq is appointed Prime Minister. Determined, the millions gathered again for the ‘march of the millions’ on Tuesday 1st February culminating with prayers onFriday 4th February – called the Friday of Departure ǧumʿat al-khulāṣ – setting an immediate deadline for Mubarak’s departure.

The régime was shaken – little did the protesters know it. Some hated figures from the régime, probably selected on the basis that their usefulness had expired, were arrested for interrogation as to corruption and use of force against the protesters. The previous day –Thursday, February 3rd – however, repressive measures had nevertheless led to a day of the greatest losses among protesters. The total figures were by now some 800 deaths and 5,000 injuries. Meanwhile Omar Suleiman opened dialogue with the leaders of the protesters. The pressure was kept up by the protesters with the Coptic community now at the centre of prayers on Sunday 6th February, gathered to say mass over the fallen of the revolution – it was dubbed the Sunday of Martyrs –Aad al-shuhadā. Muslims prayed alongside them. On Friday 10th February Mubarak made another defiant (although less strident) speech, but one that it turned out was actually against the wishes of the Supreme Military Council [SCAF] (hence the lesser stridency – the element of sheepishness). SCAF met without Mubarak or indeed Suleiman in attendance and this was filmed on state TV to introduce the public to the de facto take over bySCAF.

On Friday February 11th 2011, SCAF took power in Egypt after the forced resignation of President Hosni Mubarak (finally). The Council, led by the Defense minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, included Air Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, Armed forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Abd El Aziz Seif-Eldeen, Commander of air defense, and Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish).

Leadership of the protesters was invited by the SCAF to amend the Constitution and a hurried vote (to the anger of the budding political parties that wanted time to organise) was planned for 19 March. The Muslim Brotherhood, having launched its Freedom and Justice Party, supported the idea of the SCAF for fear of loss of momentum – although they were seen as being self-interested because they were more organised than the others. Fears that there would be a counterrevolution were stoked by the continued presence of Ahmed Shafiq at the helm of government as Prime Minister, the preparations of the NDP for forthcoming elections, and the continued presence of the gathered Mubarak clan in their compound in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Omar Suleiman however, had been dropped from an active role as being too closely connected with Israel to make him credible. More pressure from protesters who signally refused to stop protesting and meeting in Taḥrīr Square despite repeated curfews, warnings, and – on two occasions – attacks by military police this time, led to yet more NDP figures being arrested on charges of corruption and murder, and the growing perception that a popular figure was needed as Prime Minister.

On 3rd March Ahmed Shafiq was removed and Esam Sharaf installed, signally taking his oath in Taḥrīr Square to defend the revolution. The protesters finally had a friend within the ruling body, and this would serve them as events unfolded from now on. The protesters became worried as the NDP continued to organise for elections and the Mubarak clan continued to be gathered in the compound in Sharm El-Sheikh despite rumours the Mubarak was ill and possibly going to Germany for life-saving treatment – all now clearly recognised as disinformation meant to defuse passions on the street and try to gain some measure of sympathy for the old dictator.

A march was planned to go to Sharm El-Sheikh but was disallowed by the military authorities. Military units had been stationed in Sharm El-Sheikh since February 11th in clear violation of Camp David accords which stipulate that the Egyptian army cannot cross the Suez Canal. Clearly, Israel had given its approval for this. On March 22, in view of the successful referendum on the constitution, a meeting took place to review the forthcoming electoral process between all the new political parties and General Hasan Rowaini as representative for the SCAF. The rump NDP was present. The Youth Coalition Movement under the vociferous leadership of Taqadum Al-Khatib accused the SCAF of protecting Mubarak and his friends. Everybody’s attention had been focused by surprising reports from the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm claiming that someone in government had received a call from Gamal Mubarak in Sharm complaining that no one had consulted the Mubarak clan about the changes to the constitution.

At the March 22 meeting, Hasan Rowaini’s blank refusal to allow Mubarak to be charged with crimes against his people and with grand theft as the Youth Coalition Movement demanded, together with his bad tempered manner, meant that the meeting ended with daggers drawn on both sides.

The protesters threatened further massive demonstrators and were true to their word when on Friday, April 1, dubbed the “Friday to Salvage the Revolution” (ǧumʿat inqadh al-thawra) hundreds of thousands marched while tens of thousands met in Taḥrīr Square itself carrying a massive Egyptian flag in their midst. Chants went up for the return of ‘stolen millions’, for ‘the purification of the country’, warning al-Tantawi of the power of the street, chanting and ‘Marshal, Marshal, all legitimacy stems from Taḥrīr’ (Mushīr, Mushīr al-quwwa min Tarīr). This time state TV and all the newspapers were covering the demonstration, and furthermore they were joining in with protester demands. On Friday, April 8 a further rally was held in Taḥrīr with a mock trial of Mubarak in which his effigy ended up being hanged – also – crucially – covered by state TV.

The rest is history.

On April 7, Zakariya Azmi, Mubarak’s chief of staff and most trusted aid, was arrested.

On April 10 Ahmed Nazif, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister before the revolution, was arrested

On April 11 Safwat El-Sherif; the president of the Shura council and NDP General Secretary, was arrested;

On April 13 in the morning Hosni Mubarak was arrested, then Fathi Soroor, the Speaker of the Parliament, then in the evening Gamal Mubarak and Alaa Mubarak;

On April 14, heirs of the late influential NDP member Kamal Shazly were blocked from accessing the family fortune

On April 19, the NDP was declared an unlawful organisation, their assets confiscated and their main building given over the Human Rights Watch as offices

Charges are being drawn up for the arrest of Suzanne Mubarak for the theft of $145m from the Bibliotheca Alexandria.

After the chief medical officer indicated that the hospital prison in Tora jail was not equipped to receive Mubarak, some preparations have since been made and the attorneys general in charge of his case have decided to move him there when the preparations have finished.

The name Mubarak is coming off all public spaces now.

There were two factors that have led to the success of the revolution: the discipline of the Youth Coalition Movement and the quite separate actions of the Muslim Brotherhood. What the ‘international community’ including commentators failed to recognise about Egypt was that (as was the case in the final days of the soviet empire) the age, lack of energy of military leaders and the divisive nature of its organisational structure, designed to deter young officers from rising in the ranks and taking power from within, was making the military impotent in the face of raw street power.

The organisational restructuring of the Egyptian army instituted under the aegis of Mubarak and his US paymaster meant that its vital force – the vibrancy of youth was deliberately cut away. The quicksand under the military castle was accentuated by the fact of conscription in Egypt which doesn’t make for a clear dividing line between ‘soldiers’ and ‘people’. Every male in Egypt has been in the army and has contacts in the army if he is not still in it. Furthermore, Tantawi the Chief of the Supreme Military Council is a retiring figure put in the position of ultimate power by Mubarak specifically because he had the opposite character to Abu Ghazala, the previous chief and hero of the 1973 war, who had been primus inter pares ruler of Egypt until Mubarak sidelined him with the help of the US for being too independent (following the Condor incident).

Given the new status of the armed forces, where there are no new young officers to take over, finding a safe military pair of hands for the US, for Israel or for Saudi to make a deal with wasn’t going to happen. That is why it was important for those powers that Mubarak and his sons stayed on. The fact that clan Mubarak remained in Sharm el-Sheikh in their compound unable to predict the dangers facing them was entirely due to the confidence they had in their ability to make a comeback, based entirely on the assessment of the support from the US, Israel and Saudi. Normally, during the years of public quiescence in Egypt such an assessment may have been sensible – today however, obviously not. That the Mubarak clan is in Tora jail has clearly shocked every one of them (looking at their faces on TV when they were arrested), and their foreign backers.

International politicians trying to avert this situation had no understanding of what they were dealing with. The nature of the Egyptian people is something they haven’t fathomed – after all, having been so quiescent for so long – what’s up with them now? Actually his was a revolution that was brewing for some time – since the Camp David accords. The extraordinary brutality of the régime is evidence of the continuous pressure on it from the people. Finally the dam burst. But there was one element which commentators could not understand about the situation of the Egyptian people. Conscription, which was actually instituted after the 1967 war to prepare for the 1973 war and which was continued as a way of controlling the population, has led to the perverse result – from the point of view of the régime – that the ‘people’ had acquired a militarised mindset. This was what was behind the Youth Coalition Movement’s success. The ‘peaceful’ demonstrations in Egypt are a counterintuitive result of the discipline inculcated into Egyptians through the years of conscription.

Violent demonstrations would on the contrary have been symptomatic of the kind of indiscipline which one would associate with uneducated tribal behavior.

In respect of the bogeyman of the West – the Muslim Brotherhood – it surprised everybody by both embracing the Copts in all of its policies and actions, thus unifying the country, and also rupturing with Saudi Arabia. The medieval kingdom, the key Western and Israeli ally in the region, was, it was pointed out a major destabilizing force in Egypt using and funding Salafis in Egypt to cause unrest by attacking Sufi shrines and desecrating Coptic Churches. This divide and rule Saudi tactic is widespread in the Middle-East, nevertheless the Muslim Brotherhood openly opposed Saudi policy, by rounding on Salafis, and helping to rebuild churches for the Copts which the Salafis damaged. Furthermore, when the Muslim Brotherhood launched their new Freedom and Justice parliamentary party, they opened competition for all jobs including the top job, to Muslims and Christians alike.

The commentators are now confident that the ‘Arab Spring’ is slowly winding down. Maybe in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, but not in Egypt (and Tunisia). Whatever happens in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain now doesn’t take from the reality that the ‘Arab Spring’ is ongoing. All it needs is one foothold.


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