Making sense of Egypt: Part Two, a partial anatomy of insecurity

The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is accused of fomenting instability in the country. But the objectives of SCAF are best met if Egyptians feel secure, even numb, not the other way around. So if SCAF is not the culprit, who is?  Read Part One here.

Ahmed Badawi
22 March 2012

Timothy Garton Ash makes an error of commission when he argues that the biggest obstacle to freedom in Egypt today is the military-dominated security state that has run the country for 60 years and is now identified with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). 

Of course, SCAF, as a quasi-sovereign clique of old, sickly men who surely understand that their time in power is almost over did not exist 60 years ago. The military, mainly through its powerful intelligence agencies, did dominate domestic security and the rest of Egyptian political life, but only until 1967. The defeat in the war against Israel that year shook the state and its military establishment to the core. 

The first head to fly was that of the second in command at the Revolutionary Leadership Council, the effective commander of the armed forces, and Nasser’s life-long friend, Abdel Hakim Amer, who was stripped of his authority and then died under mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards. With him removed, Nasser could begin to purge the military and banish it from domestic political life. Four years later, in May 1971, Sadat finished the job of breaking the back of the military intelligence agencies, widely seen as flunking their duty of protecting Egypt against threats from abroad for the sake of building a web of corrupt agents persecuting Egyptians and pursuing not much more than the nourishment and protection of their own power and wealth. 

From then on, the Ministry of Interior took charge of domestic security. The military no longer had any significant involvement in this vital sphere, focusing its energies instead on preparing for war against Israel, which it waged in 1973, and insulating itself from the vagaries of internal political and economic life mainly through building a considerable empire of economic interests aimed primarily at guaranteeing its economic self-sufficiency. 

Over the years, the Ministry of Interior managed to build a formidable security apparatus. In the 1990s, it and its loathed State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) acquired more power and resources to engage in what was a civil war in all but name, between the state and radical Islamists. In 1997, Mubarak appointed SSIS strongman, Habib al-Adly, as Minister of Interior, a job that he held for 14 years until his downfall together with Mubarak in early 2011. 

During al-Adly’s long reign, the tentacles of the state security apparatus were extended everywhere in Egypt and the police became the country’s ultimate guarantor of ‘stability’, of the regime mainly, using diabolic forms of random brutal suppression against the opposition and whoever dared challenge its authority. 

Starting from the late 1990s, an alliance began to take shape between the police and the National Democratic Party, which was being taken over by Mubarak’s eldest son, Gamal, and the group of oligarchs surrounding him. This strategic group managed to capture the Egyptian state and turn it into a private arena for their personal enrichment. They presided over the liberalisation of the Egyptian economy, which basically meant the release of valuable state assets to be purchased at highly reduced prices by those plugged into what has been dubbed the “network of privilege” surrounding the former president. In return, the regime, with the domestic security service at its forefront, ensured the stability of the country and the silencing of dissent. 

When the state security apparatus dramatically collapsed at the start of the revolution, SCAF could not fill the vacuum that ensued even after its implicit alliance with the only organised social force in Egypt, the Islamists, in an attempt to restore to the state some of its shattered legitimacy. The attempt has been only partially successful, and the domestic security sphere continues to be a key arena of conflict between remnants of the old regime and the loose coalition of forces that are trying to replace them at the seat of power, namely SCAF, the Muslim Brothers and a handful of liberal politicians.  

It is here that the greatest obstacle to freedom in Egypt lies. A recent Gallup survey shows that only 47% of Egyptians felt safe in 2011, compared to 82% who felt the same a year earlier. The counter-revolution will be successful, and the newly won political freedom of Egyptians will be in jeopardy, if a majority of them begin to realise that they fared better under the Mubarak regime. SCAF will bear a great deal of the responsibility if this happens, not because it dominates domestic security but because it has so far failed to do so.

What is notable is that a big part of the security problem in Egypt is a matter of perception. According to another Gallup survey, the number of Egyptians who say that they had money or property stolen from them dropped from 13% in November 2010 to 8% in August 2011, and the number of those who were victims of assault dropped from 7% to 3% during the same period. Despite the decrease in the objective causes of insecurity on the individual level, the growing perception of it arguably reflects the overall condition of chaos that has enveloped Egypt since the beginning of 2011. What is wrecking the nerves of many Egyptians is not just the intensity of highly visible cases of political violence and organised crime, including the carnage in Port Said at the beginning of February. Rather, it is the fact that in almost all of these cases, the state, with SCAF at its head, has so far been unable to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. 

One view sees this as an indication that SCAF is itself the perpetrator. By fomenting trouble, SCAF would present itself as indispensable to maintaining stability in Egypt and would therefore use this as an excuse to delay, or even pre-empt the transfer of power to civilians. This is not convincing. For the most part of the last 40 years, since Sadat’s reforms at the start of his presidency, the military has not ruled directly, and there is not a single rational reason to make it want to do so now. The military has traditionally exercised its influence from behind the back of large political organisations such as the National Democratic Party, formed by Sadat in the middle of the 1970s to replace Nasser’s Socialist Union as the key organ for mass mobilisation in Egypt. When that party was taken over by the strategic group around Gamal Mubarak, in a manner threatening the military and its vast economic interests, the military saw fit to throw its lot in with the revolution, an act which prompted some analysts to describe what has happened in Egypt in January 2011 as a coup d’état rather than a revolution. 

The collapse of the NDP removed the civilian cover for military rule. This partly explains the intimate relationship that has developed between the military and the Muslim Brothers, the only organised political movement in Egypt behind which the military could continue to exercise sufficient influence over Egypt’s national security and could continue to preserve much, if not all, of its economic privileges. Whether this alliance will hold or not, remains to be seen. So far it is holding, to the benefit of both military and Islamists. 

Arguing that SCAF is fomenting insecurity to hang onto power is, therefore, a misreading of developments over the last year and is an unreflective parroting of the narrative of the revolutionaries. A cursory look at those external observers who hold this view indicates that they fall into two groups. First, there are those who are attracted to writing about the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ but are themselves not regional experts. Timothy Garton Ash is honest enough to admit as much. Others are not. Second, from among the experts, there are those who are either romantic or orientalist in perspective. They are ready to believe that any eastern ruler must be evil by default and they would readily accept as true anything being said by those brave young people who, daring to speak out for their rights, have singlehandedly brought down the mighty regime of Mubarak the dictator. Either because they cannot or do not wish to, they fail to recognise, as Garton Ash perceptively remarked, that this is a western clichéd image attached to the Egyptian revolution, one which misses larger and more important truths. 

The enmity of the revolutionaries towards SCAF must be placed in the context of the ongoing revolution and struggle for power in Egypt. They are not neutral analysts. They are parties to the struggle. Neither can their views, or those of other social forces - the military, the Islamists, the liberals or the remnants of the old regime - be presented either as fact or morally judged right or wrong, regardless of where the personal political preferences of supposedly professional analysts lie. And these, if they exist must be explicitly acknowledged. 


A lone protester stands in front of members of the military during clashes in Cairo, December 2011. Demotix/Jeffrey Bright. All rights reserved.

Some - for example the Revolutionary Socialists, see SCAF, (alongside the Muslim Brothers and many other formally organised political parties), as huge obstacles to achieving the main objective of the revolution at this stage, which is to make it permanent until the consciousness of each Egyptian is transformed forever away from acquiescence to any form of exploitative authoritarianism. This is a view with which as an Egyptian I personally sympathise, but which I would not strive to promote surreptitiously as an analyst. 

For others, SCAF is nothing but the continuation of the same corrupt regime that they wish to see destroyed, and it is actively working behind the scenes to protect Mubarak, his family and other former regime members from having to pay for the crimes they committed against the Egyptian people. More abstractly, many of the young people who flocked to Tahrir and who have now joined the ranks of revolutionaries, see SCAF, and its head, Hussein Tantawy, together with Mubarak, as representatives of that same cruel, self-contradictory father figure depicted so masterfully in Naguib Mahfouz’s novels, and against which they have finally mastered the courage to revolt.  

All this, as true as it might be, misses the point about the motivation behind the behaviour of the military in general and SCAF, in particular. What the military, as an organisation, wants is to retain the economic privileges it acquired over the last few decades. And to do so, it must be protected from the gaze of the masses by a legitimate political organisation such as the Muslim Brothers, or its predecessor, the National Democratic Party. As for SCAF, its members, all of whom should have retired years ago, want to secure their safe exit from power following the inevitable transition to civilian rule without being subjected to the same humiliating treatment as their colleagues from the old regime who are now withering behind bars. This is something that only a sympathetic parliamentary majority can provide for them. These two objectives are best served if Egyptians feel secure, even numb, under the leadership of SCAF and not the other way around. 

Moreover, as many a venerable analyst has noted, the military, with SCAF at its head, enjoys the support of almost 80% of Egyptians. Unless it is made up of total idiots, it is not clear why SCAF would be fomenting trouble and trying to make Egyptians feel insecure in order to stay in power when it already enjoys such widespread support. 

Well, if SCAF has not been orchestrating the violence in Port Said and elsewhere, who has? The majority of Egyptians who support SCAF, but who do not necessarily approve of its behaviour – a contradiction that requires another article to explain it – blame the remnants of the old regime for instability in the country. This is a loose category. Some include SCAF in it. However, when Egyptians use this term, they mainly refer to a number of other groups: the so-called Torah gang – Torah being the name of the prison complex in which Mubarak’s two sons and other former high-ranking officials are locked up. It also includes former leaders of the defunct National Democratic Party who still have access to considerable financial and societal resources and, most significantly, officials at the Ministry of Interior and the hordes of thugs at their disposal. These are the most likely culprits, the ones who do not wish to go down without dragging the rest of the country with them. This is the nature of bad losers everywhere, especially when the stakes are very high: power, prestige, privilege, and millions, even billions of pounds and dollars.  

To understand the dynamics of insecurity in Egypt we need to follow Garton Ash’s advice of going beyond clichés (including that which portrays SCAF as considerably more powerful than what it really is, one must add), and his exhortation, “to start by understanding what is happening on the ground, in all its dusty, pot-holed complexity”. 

During the few weeks following the start of the revolution, uniformed police officers vanished from the streets of Egypt. Years of arrogance, brutality and disregard for the basic human rights of Egyptians turned everyone against them. Some of the most dramatic scenes of the revolution included the burning down of some 90 police stations and countless of their vehicles throughout the country, the humiliating arrest of the Minister of Interior in his office and the ransacking of the offices of the disgraced State Security Investigations Service. The SSIS has since then been disbanded and reconstituted as a National Security Agency, with far less powers, at least in theory. Police officers lost any semblance of moral authority that they had before the revolution and only a few of them dared to appear in public in their uniforms, for fear of attack by an angry population that has broken the barrier of fear on 25 January. 

As they were hastily retreating, and while the demonstrators were still occupying Tahrir demanding the fall of the regime, the police opened the gates of some prisons as an act of revenge on the society that dared to revolt against them, and in order to undermine the revolution from within. The order to do so reportedly came from the minister himself, al-Adly. Thousands of thugs and other dangerous criminals poured into the cities and villages of Egypt and, until this day, are terrorising Egyptians and are playing a key role in undermining the revolution.  

Simply defined, thugs are violent criminals and they do all sorts of things that criminals do: theft, murder and extortion, among other smaller and bigger crimes. There are, however, two key differences between them and normal criminals. First, they use violence as a first choice, unlike criminals who resort to violence only as a last option, if they use it at all. For example, a normal criminal would steal a car late at night, in stealth, when no one is looking. If about to be caught, he would instinctively try to run away. For a thug, this is dishonourable behaviour. If a thug, or rather a group of thugs, wish to steal a car, they would probably do so in broad daylight, beat up the driver or even kill him or her and simply drive away with the stolen vehicle. In a recent incident, they drove away with two babies in the back seat who were later found thrown onto the side of the road, luckily still alive. 

The second main difference is that, unlike normal criminals, thugs perform political functions. Some thugs have been bred by the SSIS, which kept them on a tight leash but would let them loose on the regime’s opponents, beating them up, destroying their vehicles, burning their homes. During elections, they would be sent to terrorise would-be voters for opposition candidates. In exchange, the police would turn a blind eye to their crimes against the people, normally the poor. If they crossed certain red lines, for example committing brutal murders or generally creating a bad smell around themselves, the police would mercilessly crack down on them, put them behind bars or simply shoot them down like mad dogs.

With the vacuum created by the vanishing police force, the people formed popular committees to protect themselves and their property against increasing attacks by thugs and other criminals who made best use of the security vacuum. But this, among a number of other factors, almost brought the economy to a complete halt, with people choosing to stay at home with their families rather than going to work. And it could not have been a sustainable arrangement anyway. So the military had no choice but to try to fulfil normal policing functions: arresting criminals, organising traffic, securing vital buildings in addition to slowly stymieing the tide of revolutionary fervour. Similar to the Muslim Brothers, the military wished to get rid of Mubarak and his cronies but they had no interest whatsoever in seeing the revolution develop into an overall assault on the state, destroying it in the process. 

Its visible presence in the street put the military in direct confrontation with the revolutionaries, who started to vent their anger at it, as the most visible representation of the state and as a key remaining pillar of the old regime that many of them wished to dismantle. The growing tension and distrust between the revolutionaries and the military allowed the thugs and their paymasters to wreak irreparable damage on the relationship between the two. Some young revolutionaries swore to me that they saw thugs shooting at the army from among the demonstrators during the sectarian clashes in Maspero in October, in which at least 27 people were killed, mostly Copts. 

In the last months of 2011, the image of the military began to suffer as a result of repeated deadly encounters with demonstrators. This confronted SCAF with an intractable dilemma: continue to have a presence on the streets, only to be more and more identified with the counter-revolution. Or leave the street, but then the whole country might slip out of control and the state totally collapse under the weight of revolutionary fervour. Their only solution was to empower the Ministry of Interior to refill the vacuum and slowly hand security over to it. 


A protester throws back the tear gas bomb into direction of the police forces in Tahrir square. November 2011. Demotix/Amr Jamil. All rights reserved.

The police started to reappear. However, many police officers continued to feel demoralised and unable to exercise any meaningful authority, which could be one explanation why they dared not intervene when the fans of al-Masry and the thugs accompanying them went amok in Port Said at the beginning of February. 

In December, and after intense public pressure, a new government with far-reaching powers was sworn in. Finding a new Minister of Interior proved to be a major challenge. On the one hand, the old guards in the ministry vehemently refused to have a civilian occupying the top post, as some of the revolutionaries demanded at the time. On the other hand, the people refused to have one chosen from among the circle that had surrounded the deposed minister, who had managed to plant his loyalists in all key position in the ministry. Finally, a compromise was reached in the form of retired General Mohamed Ibrahim, who served under al-Adly but is not considered one of his close allies. 

Ibrahim hit the ground running. He has led many police campaigns against thugs and other criminals, with some major successes, and is spending most of his time not in his air-conditioned office but in the streets of Egypt, talking to the people and providing moral support to his forces. The people responded positively, and the military must have sighed with relief as it began to reduce its visible presence in many parts of the country. 

In football games, however, where the potential for violence is always high, the military maintained its support for the police. In a game held between al-Ahly and Mahalla in the Egyptian Delta on the last day of December, the police was successful in pre-empting violence and separating the fans before matters got completely out of control, but only after the military occupied the football pitch. The scenes of Mahalla fans going wild and attempting to attack the players and fans of al-Ahly now look like a dress rehearsal for what would happen, to more damaging effect, only one month later in Port Said. 

This makes the collapse of security in Port Said even more puzzling, and raises a number of questions: Was it premature for the military to hand over total responsibility for securing the game to the local police force? In retrospect, the answer must be in the affirmative. Who, then, made that decision: was it someone from the military or from the police? So far, nobody knows the answer. What is known is that death in Port Said came at the end of a few months of bloody confrontations between the revolutionaries and a state teetering on the edge of collapse, one that has lost most of its capacity for maintaining law and order in the country. This, the logic goes, has been part of a systematic attempt by remnants of the old regime to undermine the revolution and to drive a wedge between the military and the people. 

Spreading chaos in the country would be the fulfilment of the subtle threat disguised as prophesy made by Mubarak and his newly appointed vice president at the time, former General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, in televised interviews: if Mubarak was forced to step down, chaos would follow. 

Until there is a conclusion to the investigations into the fatal incidents of political violence in Port Said and elsewhere, it is almost impossible to know where the truth lies. The outcome, however, is not such a moot point. Whether these were conspiracies of men or of fate, the outcome remains the same. The sense of insecurity felt by most Egyptians is undermining the revolution. 

The new Minister of Interior is under pressure from the newly elected parliament, either to reform the ministry and get rid of those who remain loyal to the old regime, practically-speaking most of the ministry’s top brass, or to lose his job, which in fact might not be a bad choice for him. One theory about the motivation behind the violence in Port Said claims that it has been engineered by powerful elements inside the Ministry of Interior to undermine the new minister and pre-empt any attempt by him to effectively reform the system.

If there is any truth to this theory, then it must have been a serious miscalculation by the presumed culprits. The man has so far survived and continues to be seen in a favourable light by the people and their majority in parliament. All this should provide him with sufficient power, eventually, to get rid of his unruly subordinates. Traditionally, personnel changes at the Ministry of Interior take place in August. This year, it will come after the presidential elections. With a new president at the helm, and possibly a new government sworn in once the mandate of the current one expires in summer, it will be interesting to see whether Ibrahim will keep his job. More significantly, will he indeed be able to purge the Ministry of Interior of all those who have participated over the last few years in humiliating Egyptians and brutalising them, and who remain loyal to the old regime?      

What is at stake is not just the removal of a group of police officers from power or something that can be fixed by the receipt of technical assistance from the west in implementing so-called ‘security sector reforms’. At the heart of the matter is a complex political and social conflict between powerful strategic groups, all of whom wish to capture the state and its organs that are now up for grabs. The new National Security Agency, the heir to the disbanded State Security Investigations Service, is regrouping around the same cadre of officers who made up the SSIS. Only a few days ago, some members of parliament claimed that a National Security Agency officer was caught under cover, enticing a group of demonstrators to attack the People’s Assembly. 

More worryingly, the powerful military intelligence agencies seem to be once again, after decades of absence, meddling in internal domestic security affairs. These agencies are more powerful than all the members of the SCAF put together, and far removed from any public oversight. SCAF itself is far from being a unified force, and the military as a whole has many competing branches. A young revolutionary told me that these branches are playing a dangerous game, competing amongst themselves for privilege and influence, not only behind closed doors but also in the streets of Egypt. 

This may partly explain why SCAF, as a whole, has so far been unable to uncover and discipline those who have steered violence in the country over the last year. All this is coupled with a judicial system that boasts many honourable judges but at the same time is plagued with administrative inefficiencies and a jungle of laws most of which are incompatible with modern standards of governance.  

The outcome of this conflict shall largely determine whether Egypt will make further steps forward towards a healthy parliamentary democracy and respect for rule of law or regress into renewed authoritarianism and a random exercise of oppression. 

Regaining a sense of security in Egypt requires far-reaching reforms in its domestic security sector, a formidable task in a country that has been ruled by force for the last few decades. Such reforms, to be meaningful, would involve the wholesale reformulation of an outdated political culture that is not compatible with freedom. Sub-optimal bureaucratic structures will have to be dismantled, against the desire of powerful interests who continue to benefit from them. New modes of thought and behaviour will need to be learned by the people who are the users and should also become the guardians of the behaviour of the organs of the new modern state in which they wish to live. 

As history should teach those who dangerously delude themselves that Egypt could become a democracy in a matter of a few months or years, the revolution has just begun. It might take years, if not decades, for us to determine whether it was successful or not. 

The first step must be for the state to regain its balance and its capacity to exercise monopoly on the use of force in society, and for Egyptians to feel secure in a country in which their basic human rights and socioeconomic needs are respected and fulfilled, and which they could finally have pride in calling their own. 

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