It has been a couple of years since we first started writing about Egypt; at that time we did a series of stories that described how the country’s Constitution is designed to ensure that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) remains the ruling party, how corruption and torture and rape are part of the justice system, how there’s a looming Presidential succession crisis, and how we better pay attention, because one day all of this was going to blow up into a national emergency, with the potential for disastrous consequences that ripple all the way from Turkey to Morocco to Pakistan.
And now...that day has arrived.
After protests that led to a change of government (sort of) in Tunisia, rioting is spreading across Egypt, quickly, the ISI (Egypt’s internal security police) is out grabbing citizens and doing what they do (we’ll talk more about that later), and the question of Presidential succession, which many people thought was headed in one direction, may now be headed off to a place that outside observers might not have previously considered.
Lucky for you, I have some reach inside Egypt, and we’re going to get a peek inside the story that you might not have seen otherwise.
"My grandfather knew the exact time of the exact day of the exact year that he would die."
"Wow, what an evolved soul! How did it come to him?"
"The judge told him."
--From "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar...", Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
Time is short, and this story is moving fast, so here’s the short and sweet version of the background that you "need to know": since the Republic of Egypt was founded (in 1956), only the NDP has held power. Hosni Mubarak, the fourth and current President, has ruled since 1981, when he took over after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
He’s thinking about succession plans more and more these days (for the NDP, Government corruption is a business, and everyone with a hand in the till wants the business to keep running smoothly), and if he had his wish his son, Gamal, would step into the job—and it looks like Gamal is trying to do just that: he makes public appearances where he looks Presidential, and it is reported by our State Department that he is involved in the formulation of legislation and Government policy.
Because the Egyptian Constitution’s famous Article 76 is designed to ensure that the NDP retains its stranglehold on power, there is no single opposition figure outside the NDP who commands enough public support and party infrastructure to really mount an electoral challenge.
(Ensure, you say? The Constitution’s intent is to "protect national unity"; to that end it requires all political parties to be licensed by the Government...which, of course, is run by the NDP
Political parties are barred from forming coalitions amongst themselves, and all candidates for Parliament or President must be approved by the Government before they can appear on the ballot—and should the authorities choose, that permission can be withdrawn during an election campaign.
A party can be ordered to disband. The Government can also, at any time, order parties not to accept any funds from any sources.)
The last candidate allowed to run against Mubarak in any serious way was Ayman Nour, of the El Ghad Party, in 2005; for his trouble he first received about 8% of the vote in a heavily rigged Egyptian election and then, soon after, a nice long sentence in a heavily guarded Egyptian prison. (He’s since been released.)
The ISI, acting in their capacity as one of the guardians of State Security, are recognized worldwide for their willingness to go "above and beyond" to make sure Egyptians stay unified in their support of the NDP; their motivational tactics have included everything from attempting to take over an opposition party to organizing a well-timed riot to raping bloggers the Government doesn’t like all the way up to "disappearing" and killing those who get too far out of line.
(The USA has "leveraged" Egypt’s expertise in torture throughout the "War on Terror", and the place has been a popular destination for those being "renditioned".)
Here’s an example: The Guardian (the UK newspaper) has an amazing audio recording on their website that was made by one of their reporters who was grabbed by riot police in Cairo during a street demonstration in the past day or so (along with about 50 others) and driven around in a police truck for several hours. The idea was to slam them into each other and the metal walls of the truck so as to "tenderize" them a bit, they were then driven out into the desert, presumably with the intent of making them think they were about to be killed.
Among those thrown in the truck was Ayman Nour’s son...which adds another dimension to how the intimidation can work, doesn’t it?
Egypt is officially a secular nation, but many Egyptians would like to see an Islamic Republic; their interests were represented by the Muslim Brotherhood until the Party was officially banned.
Today there is an underground alliance of politicians, some of whom serve in Parliament, that represent the same interests—which scares the NDP to no end.
(Other noteworthy religious sects within the population include Sufis, Copts, and Orthodox Christians, and there have been tensions between the various groups that have recently led to numerous incidents of violence.)
The Army has always served (as is the case in Turkey) as a guardian of secular interests and as a guarantor of "stability". All of the Republic’s Presidents have served in the Army, and Gamal Mubarak, if he were to advance to the Presidency, would be the first to break that rule.
The other thing you need to know is that Tunisia, which is right next door, is going through the exact same thing: they have also had one-party rule forever, and popular discontent with government corruption, combined with an unemployment rate that makes Detroit look like a city "on the...grow!", has led to so much rioting and changing of Governments that the country actually had three heads of state in 24 hours.
Of course, when you’ve always had one party rule and any political opposition is aggressively stamped out, that means any change in Government is likely to be a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" kind of a deal—and that’s precisely what’s happening in Tunisia.
History lesson done, it’s time to consider the present: just like in Tunisia, the rioting has begun.
There are reports of demonstrations involving thousands of protesters in Cairo, Alexandria, and in the Suez; among those reports are details that include the burning and blockading of police stations, mass detainments, and the firing of live bullets and rocket propelled grenades on the crowds. There are also reports of numerous deaths among the demonstrators.
There are reports that "Muslims and Christians together" are out demonstrating against the Government in Cairo, and it’s Bedouins who are protesting out in the Sinai. All of this is much different than the typical protests that have occurred in the past, which seem to have been of a more secular nature.
Prisoners at the Fayoum Prison (many of whom are there without trial or charges filed; many of whom have been tortured) are engaging in hunger strikes and security officials are concerned that the strikes could spread across all the country’s prisons, according to the El Badeel newspaper.
Former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed El Baradei is attempting to mobilize a "National Assembly for Change"...and today the group issued a statement in Arabic that appears to describe the opposition’s efforts to achieve power as an "intifada" and seems to demand the "renunciation of President Mubarak’s rule".
El Baradei himself is in the country; The Times of India quotes him as saying: "Mubarak has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire...", which is an enormously brave thing to say inside Egypt, considering that he could either end up as the next leader of a unity Government or "tenderized" by the security services.
Today, January 28th, is intended to be what’s described as another "Day of Wrath"; Islamic weekends also begin on Fridays, so the demonstrations could become enormously large, and it’s unknown what could happen.
If the Mubaraks had to go, there are a few others beside El Baradei that might be in line to take the job:
--First, let’s assume a scenario like Tunisia’s, where Mubarak leaves but the NDP stays, and the "same as the old boss" deal plays out; the candidate to watch in that situation might be General Omar Suleiman (notice I said "General"...unlike Gamal Mubarak). He’s the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS), and I think it’s fair to say that the US Government views him as, shall we say, cooperative.
Another man to watch would be Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid—but he got himself caught up in some serious political trouble last year when the Nation’s wheat imports were threatened (50% of Egypt’s wheat is imported), and that may come back to haunt him now.
--If the NDP were to lose control of the situation, you could have someone like Ayman Nour or Saad Eddin Ibrahim step in, so the question becomes whether the National Assembly for Change coalition can either hold together for the long term or form a "caretaker" Government that might include several opposition leaders with elections to follow shortly thereafter.
Nour’s El Ghad Party and many others appear to be cooperating with the National Assembly for Change, at least for now—but the history of coalitions often involves the rapid dissolution of the group after victory is achieved, and there’s no way to know if that might happen down the road.
--Could the Muslim Brotherhood establish a theocracy, or something like one—and would they want to?
That is the big question...and I honestly do not know the answer. However, they are currently involved in the National Assembly for Change, and a representative of the Brotherhood (who, of course, doesn’t "officially" exist) was quoted as saying that joining the movement:
"..does not mean that we support for Dr. ElBaradei, as a candidate for president."
One thing I do know: the Army has stepped in to maintain political order, more than once, and the Muslim Brotherhood would have to consider how far they could go before they caused a clash that would be bad for everyone.
They also would have to deal with the "jobs and economy" and systemic corruption issues, as any secular government would, otherwise any potential victory might be a short-lived one.
--Speaking of the Army stepping in...that could indeed happen, and a military Government would not be that surprising an outcome if things were to really start getting crazy and basic order were to collapse in a big big way.
The close relationship between the Mubarak government and the US security apparatus is something that is not well received at home, and we should expect that any new President not named Gamal would display a less warm public image toward the United States—even if they act differently in private.
So that’s what I know so far, and I’ll try to find out more as I can—but the big story today is that today might look something like Iran last June, with lots of sound and fury and repression to follow—or it might look like Tunisia, where "government du jour" is the order of the day.
Various Internet services are being blocked in Egypt, but here’s a Twitter page to check during the day...and if there’s more to tell, we’ll come back and tell it.
OK, there’s more already: The Times of India is reporting that Gamal Mubarak took his family and left for London Wednesday morning—and now it’s looking like the troubles might be spreading to Lebanon, where a coalition Government with Hezbollah as one of the partners...despite their losing a 2009 election...has the country’s Sunnis out in the streets.
It is possible for you to create a "network tunnel" from your own computer that can be used by Egyptians who cannot access parts of the Internet due to Government firewalling: if you'd like to help, information can be found here.
Rockin' a Mac? You need to click here.
UPDATE 0254 PDT: There are now reports that Al Jazeera is being blocked from the Nilesat satellite TV service.
UPDATE 0446 PDT: It is reported that Vodafone was ordered to shut down cellphone service.
Tweets are reporting that demonstrations of unkown size are taking place in Amman and other cities in Jordan.