Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Goodfellas on the Nile

by Steven A. Cook
April 14, 2011

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's sons Alaa Mubarak and Gamal Mubarak in Cairo in early January (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

In this extended season of the unthinkable becoming reality, Hosni, Alaa, and Gamal Mubarak are being detained pending an investigation into violence against protestors, corruption, profiteering, wasting public funds, and illegal accumulation of wealth. On Monday, Alaa (the lesser well-known of the Mubarak boys) and Gamal were transferred to Tora prison near Cairo. They now join former senior National Democratic Party and government officials including Safwat el Sherif, Ahmed Ezz, Fathi Sorour, Ahmad Nazif, and Habib el Adly in white prison jumpsuits. Former President Mubarak remains in a Sharm el Sheikh hospital, but the State Prosecutor and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces insist that he is under detention. Rumor also has it that Suzanne Mubarak has undergone questioning. These developments are of extraordinary symbolic importance on two levels. First, Egyptians have been demanding accountability and bringing the Mubaraks to the dock is an obvious step in that direction. Second, it indicates the power of what is known as the “revolutionary groups” or “revolutionary youth.” On Sunday, I wrote about the competing legitimacies between these groups on the one hand and the armed forces on the other. With Gamal and Alaa in the clink, Hosni under guard, and Suzanne under investigation it seems that the revolutionaries are winning this war.

One of the Egyptians I follow on twitter declared upon hearing the news about the Mubaraks, “It’s like the army woke up and realized we had a revolution.” There is a sense—based on everything I can tell from 5,000 miles away—that now the Egyptians can move on and build a new political system. In response to the detention of Mubarak and his sons, the revolutionaries have called off planned protests for Friday. I wonder if the revolutionary youth cut a deal with Field Marshal Tantawi and his fellow commanders.

For all good news associated with detaining the Mubaraks, what exactly have the revolutionaries (“matadors of the Internet” as one friend put it) achieved? Here is my unscientific accounting:

  • Arrest and investigation of the former first family;
  • Dissolution of State Security Investigations;
  • Dismissal of the editor-in-chiefs of the state controlled press;
  • Removal of the government of Ahmed Shafiq.

Those are impressive achievements in only two months’ time, but there are a host of other demands that have not been met including: lifting of the emergency law, ending military prosecution of civilians, dissolution of the National Democratic Party, formation of a presidential committee, and ban of former NDP members from the national dialogue.

If the revolutionary youth want to realize any of their additional goals, they might want to rethink their decision to call off protests. There has been enormous pressure for the country to get back to normal, and many activists support the suspension of the protests. Still, the threat of additional demonstrations gave the revolutionaries leverage. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has caved every time the revolutionaries have sought to turn up the political heat through new protests. Now what is the point of leverage for the revolutionaries? To be sure, they can call people back to Tahrir, but now that they have called off further protest combined with a desire for things to get back to normal, the Supreme Council may be less inclined to compromise. I hope the “Mubarak for protests” deal was worth it.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Marcus

    Type your comment in here…I would be interested in your thoughts on whether the protesters will learn from the lesson of Iraq, that there is a high price to be paid for the absence of order and a slow transition to a constitutional democracy.

  • Posted by E R

    Dear Mr. Cook:

    Your suggestion that the secular/liberal youth forces continue protesting would spell nothing short of the death of that revolution.

    Two Fridays ago (April 1) the liberal/secular youth held a “million man march” to “save the revolution.” However, the protest march on April 1 did not draw significant numbers.

    By contrast, the much larger protest last Friday (April 8) was dubbed the “million man march” to bring President Mubarak to trial. Most of the chants were demands to prosecute/execute the former president and his cabinet and some protests directly demanded that the removal of current head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Tantawi.

    Now this more recent protest was the first time in several weeks that the Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood + Salafis primarily) had joined the public protests. And so the difference in turnout between the two protests might give clues about how the “street power” of the secular forces compares with that of the Islamists. In fact, the unusual turnout on April 8 reflected the growing strength of Islamist movements to organize the street – as compared to the meager showing of the secular forces the week prior – as well as the Islamists’ ever greater determination to prosecute former regime officials.

    This determination to accelerate trials and executions serves two strategic purposes. First, in the new Egypt the only two organized grassroots political movements are the NDP (old ruling party) and the Muslim Brotherhood. Decapitating the NDP would leave the Muslim Brotherhood as the only remaining grassroots political entity with any capacity to organize on a mass scale.

    Second, executing former generals like President Mubarak, Vice President Suleman, Prime Minister Shafiq, etc. would sow sedition in the top military brass (where many remain loyal to Mubarak) and weaken the cohesion of the army. Weakening the army would advance the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategic bargaining position when the time comes to split the political power pie….

    In case you are in doubt, perhaps you might consider why the military only accedes to “demands” made my secular forces when those demands happen to coincide with the Muslim Brotherhood’s own demands (such as the prosecution of former regime officials). But as of today, the “other demands” of the secular youth – extended timetables for elections, interim governing council, new constitution, order of presidential vs. parliamentary elections, civilian vs. military trials, arbitrary arrest and detention, etc. – have largely been ignored.

    Moreover, the possibility that there are real divisions within the military with some elements more sympathetic to the de facto Muslim Brotherhood/Salafist alliance with the military leadership should not be ruled out.

    Unfortunately, the sad fact is that the secular forces don’t have sufficient “street power” on their own and any such return to mass protests given the perilous state of the economy would do more harm than good.

  • Posted by heraish

    They can always protest again if things slow down again.

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