While Hosni Mubarak awaits trial the security state he built is fighting for its survival and, with the help of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, may pull through. As the clock ticks toward September parliamentary polls, the champions of January 25th are struggling to raze Mubarak’s apparatus and erect an accountable government. Unfortunately, they have been obstructed by the army council that vowed to lead a democratic transition. The SCAF’s reassurances will mean little unless it heeds renascent crowds in Tahrir and culls the security apparatus still menacing Egyptian families.
During the January 25th Revolution, a groundswell of decentralized but well coordinated opposition overpowered the Egyptian regime’s main coercive institutions. But when Egyptian soldiers rolled in on tanks and armored personnel carriers, demonstrators embraced them as liberators. Only a week and a half later, after protesters in Tahrir withstood deadly assaults by armed thugs and showed no signs of relenting, did the SCAF accede to popular calls for Mubarak`s resignation.
The country’s generals, though, did not return to the barracks, repeal the Emergency Law (a core aim of January 25th organizers), or transfer executive power to a civilian-led transitional committee. Eschewing transparency and public representation, the SCAF began sending delegates to meet with selected groups—a method that recalled Mubarak’s superficial of “dialogue” in prior years. Those not given an audience with the country’s top brass were left broadcasting their grievances through fresh rallies in Tahrir. In late June, massive police force threatened to crush this last lever for holding the SCAF to its own democratic vows.
When families and comrades of fallen demonstrators demanded Ministry of Interior personnel be held accountable for deaths of some 850 Egyptians (and the serious injuries of thousands more), they were met with waves of tear gas and truncheons. The escalation of repression in Tahrir during the last week of June eerily recalled protesters’ victory months earlier. It also signaled that the revolution was not yet complete and, in the absence of decisive action by the SCAF, only mass collective action would banish security from Egyptians’ private lives and national politics.
In the five months since the military entered the fray, demonstrators have effected a series of major changes that otherwise would have been inconceivable: Mubarak’s ouster (February 11), Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s resignation (March 3), and the investigation of Mubarak and his sons (begun April 11). These victories for the new opposition vanguard, however, have shown the limits of the SCAF’s vision and verve to establish democracy. Sidelining or even prosecuting Mubarak and his most reviled myrmidons targets the ex-ruler without changing the rules and practices of his regime. Whereas the army has ostentatiously, almost eagerly, discarded the symbols of Mubarak’s era (even rebranding “State Security” as National Security), they have quietly preserved his security operations.
Facile anti-Mubarakism should not be mistaken for democratization. On the contrary, selective populism without popular sovereignty is a quick route to post-Mubarak authoritarianism.
To fathom the threat posed to the accomplishments of the January 25th Movement and the Youth Coalition spearheading subsequent protests, observers should consider the recent history of Mubarak’s domestic enforcers, the success of nonviolent demonstrators overcoming them (no thanks to the army), and the risk that without far-reaching bureaucratic reforms the matrix of Egyptian repression will return as vicious as before but with fresh scores to settle. While activists prepare to reoccupy Tahrir, journalists and scholars should turn some of their energy from the second-order problem of electoral engineering and consider the urgent task of deconstructing a security state.
Repression in Retreat
If the Egyptian repressive apparatus were a country it would be more populous than Qatar (including non-citizens). Estimates of recent years put the Ministry of Interior’s personnel at 1.5 million, not including informants. Egypt’s top cop thus commands a staff almost four times as large as the Egyptian military. His resources are equally prodigious. While forty percent of Egyptians lived on less than $2 a day, the annual budget of Minister of Interior Habib Al Adly (1997-2011) had recently topped $1 billion and begun outpacing the army’s revenue stream.
This behemoth encapsulates the dreaded State Security Investigations Services (SSIS, now National Security Agency), a lightning rod for opposition no matter what it is named. Under police czar (and now convict) Al Adly, the moles and thugs of SSIS permeated political parties, syndicates, university life, and elections.
Two other agencies also share the mission of domestic security. Thanks to Mubarak’s fears of rival officers, the SSIS steadily eclipsed Egypt’s Military Intelligence Directorate (MID), based in the Ministry of Defense. The MID, though, was never disbanded and it resurfaced to notoriety during the revolution. The MID also staffed the country’s premier security force, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID).
Known simply as the mukhabarat, the GID targeted dissidents inside Egypt and abroad, led for over half of Mubarak’s tenure by military intelligence veteran Omar Suleiman (1993-2011). Suleiman became the eminence grise of extraordinary renditions and was credited with defeating Egypt’s Islamic militants in the 1990s. His successor, still in place today, is another Mubarak military appointee, Murad Muwafi, previously governor of the destitute North Sinai.
The public visage of Egypt’s coercive Leviathan is the three hundred thousand conscripts of Egypt’s Central Security Forces (CSF). In the 2000s the black garbed CSF corralled demonstrations with their plexiglass shields and primitive cudgels. Meanwhile, the muscle work of dispersing rallies often went to Al Adly’s plain clothed thugs (the infamous “bultagiya”).
Analysts and participants trace the latest opposition cohort to the pre-“Kefaya” protests of the second Palestinian intifada (in 2000). Hence this massive security infrastructure carried Mubarak through a decade of bold opposition, blunting major protests to the Iraq War (March 2003), the Lebanon War (summer 2006), and Operation Cast Lead (winter 2008-2009) while undermining new organizations like Ayman Nour’s Ghad Party. In late January 2011, though, Mubarak’s repression machine ground to a halt.
During the revolution Mubarak’s previously unbeatable security forces faced their greatest battle against domestic dissent and lost spectacularly. Crucially, the CSF proved a paper tiger, more effective at deterring protest than suppressing it. Young and old Egyptians braved water cannons and tear gas canisters to reach Tahrir (Liberation) Square. As marchers pressed on, they forced the conscripts and their armored vehicles aside.
Over a few short days, protesters in Cairo and other major cities had outmaneuvered and then outnumbered the phalanxes of the CSF. Its shock troops routed, the Ministry of Interior completely withdrew its uniformed personnel, even traffic cops, from the streets. Al Adly’s resignation, a long standing goal of the Egyptian opposition, soon followed.
As the Egyptian army rolled in and the police disappeared, the security state gained a chance to re-constitute itself after facing an existential threat. No appointment signified the latent power of security more than spymaster Suleiman’s assumption of the vice presidency. Nearly a week into the crisis, Mubarak was rearranging the deck chairs, not reversing course, and only because of an unprecedented and unpredictable groundswell. Like their commander, the Egyptian generals acted to save the security state from a coup de grace at the hands of millions.
It was evident early on that Mubarak’s friends in the Obama administration hoped he could regain control through an "orderly transition" to Suleiman. SCAF officers shared that attitude, describing to American journalists that they backed Mubarak when civilian protesters first took to the streets: “At the beginning, we gave the presidential institution the full opportunity to manage events. If it were able to succeed, nothing would have happened.” The problem was not a surfeit of repression but a deficit. Only when the masses overwhelmed Mubarak’s forces did the army move against him: “[His forces] were incapable of responding to the events. . . . On Feb. 10, there were demonstrations that amounted to millions of people all over the country.”
This self-indictment—which dispels the SCAF’s image as democratic ferrymen—helps explain how Egypt’s top brass approached dissent in subsequent months. Instead of reforming the Egyptian state from peak to base, the military adopted a conservative, defensive strategy. As they reacted to public rallies and professional strikes, magnanimous gestures took the place of holistic reforms. Even the SCAF’s sporadic deference to outside opinion betrayed a readiness to arrest and intimidate those who contest their writ.
By their own admission, the generals are not self-abnegating stewards but shareholders in the authoritarian status quo. Their investment in the system extends far beyond substantial holdings in the national economy. They are enmeshed in the Ministry of Interior, General Intelligence Directorate, and other unaccountable bureaucracies. Like elites everywhere, unless pressed toward a more costly alternative they will not relinquish their privileges nor challenge those of their partners and adjuncts. Thus, as the past week shows, the SCAF prefers repressing young activists and families of martyrs to reining in the Ministry of Interior.
Re-Stating the Egyptian State
Until recently, bureaucratic reform and official accountability drew less attention in post-Mubarak Egypt than elections and constitutional planning. In the March 19 referendum the liberal-leftist nucleus of the January 25th Movement saw its arguments against the SCAF’s constitutional amendments swamped by a 77% “Yes” vote. The outcome locked in the SCAF’s brisk timeline for elections: for parliament in September and the presidency by the end of the year. It also precluded a new constitution be written before elections took place.
Looking ahead to elections, the revolutionaries who had brought Mubarak down would be seriously—and perhaps permanently—disadvantaged versus candidates from the Society of Muslim Brothers and the ex-ruling National Democratic Party, who benefit from extensive networks and name recognition in their constituencies. Because the next parliament is set to choose delegates to a constitutional assembly, new political forces could find themselves locked out indefinitely.
For a period, the electoral marginalism of Egypt’s new opposition stoked vigorous debates about the correct sequencing of elections and constitution writing and the best system for electing MPs. Thanks to the vast literature on electoral engineering and constitutions in new democracies, this stuff is ambrosia to political scientists. The discipline has much to offer in those areas.
Ironically though, as elections approach, oppositionists have redirected their activities toward the security state still dominating Egyptian politics. For this Friday, July 8, they have promised a second “Revolution of Anger.”
On the project of restructuring an authoritarian state and making it publicly accountable, the technical expertise of political science falls short. Outside of the polar opposites of post-Apartheid South Africa (a good outcome none can replicate) and Iraq (a catastrophe no one wants to recreate), there is scant guidance about the conditions that best enable citizens to retrench coercive institutions, punish or reconcile with torturers and killers, and convert ministries of interior into civilian departments.
Those challenges overshadow the electoral arena and form the mission of demonstrators in Tahrir. The opposition is pushing Egypt where the SCAF fears to tread—into the uncharted territory of civilian sovereignty.
Friday’s pending confrontation could have been avoided had the SCAF seized earlier opportunities to clean out the Ministry of Interior. Ever since Mubarak left office, the ministry’s employees have resisted change. Police demonstrations have conveyed a variety of concerns, material, political, and legal. Many are concerned about their livelihoods; some seek to escape punishment for the lives they took.
Addressing this bureaucratic thicket, the SCAF could have heeded the advice of Egypt’s human rights and legal community. They instead took the path of least resistance. Rather than dissolving State Security completely and civilianizing the Ministry of Interior, the SCAF changed the agency’s name and kept the ministry running as a paramilitary institution. When rights groups called for a Minister of Interior with a non-military background and legal training, the SCAF promoted a veteran of Al Adly’s ministry.
Although the SCAF abjures any zeal for ruling Egypt, its unwillingness to re-form the Ministry of Interior and other security branches ensures authoritarianism by default. Notwithstanding their ad hoc style, the generals are not behaving as benevolent caretakers. Their actions show the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior are two faces of a regime that will continue denying Egyptians whatever dignity, freedoms, and power they do not forcibly reclaim.