The Egyptian Revolution Right Now: A Situation Report

 

Here’s a snapshot of Egypt as of Sunday morning folded together with some analysis.

ON THE STREETS: The beginnings of anarchy. The police have thrown in the towel, leaving the maintenance of law and order to the army — but the soldiers inside the tanks, who have chosen for the most part to stand by inactive while crowds pour into the streets in defiance of the dawn-to-dusk curfew, are also doing little to keep the protesters safe. (You are probably reading reports that the army has taken the protesters’ side en masse; beware the temptation to swallow this whole.) Groups of people, primarily looters (as opposed to peaceful demonstrators), were taken off the streets last night, but the army is not enforcing a strict crackdown on either protesters or violent opportunists by any means. (More on this below.) 

The product of the security vacuum is chaos. The death toll has tipped 100 and 2,000 are reported injured so far. Mubarak’s party headquarters building was burned to the ground and other government buildings set alight. As in Tunisia, prisons have been torched, and many convicts have escaped and are now roaming the streets. Egyptian television is reporting that at least sixty rapes have occurred since the unrest began five days ago. Citizens are arming themselves with sticks, clubs, bats, broom handles, kitchen knives, razors and guns to protect their homes from marauders; neighbors are banding together to defend individual streets. Looting is rampant: opportunists are pillaging everything they can get their hands on, and many otherwise law-abiding citizens are raiding supermarkets to get supplies into the house before there’s nothing left on the shelves. Store owners have been seen frantically painting their windows white to conceal the goods within. There are no longer any guards minding the banks, and ATM machines are being smashed and looted. Rioters broke into the Cairo Museum, smashing statues and pulling the heads off mummies. (Again citizens were seen taking matters into their own hands: Al-Arabiya reports that “young Egyptians – some armed with truncheons grabbed off the police – created a human chain at the museum’s front gate to prevent looters from making off with any of its priceless artifacts.”) Wealthy Egyptians are scrambling to fly out of the country on private jets and foreign airlines are suspending flights. Al-Jazeera, which had been broadcasting the protests around the country, has been taken off the air.

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MUBARAK’S STATUS: Mubarak is refusing to resign, but there is word (as yet unconfirmed) that he’s fled Cairo for his home in Sharm-al-Sheik. He has sent his family (his two sons and his wife) to London and has appointed his intelligence czar, Omar Suleiman, as VP. This amounts to a concession by Mubarak that his son Gamal — who has been groomed as his successor — will never take power. (Mubarak was Sadat’s VP and ascended to power when Sadat was assassinated; the VP spot is the presidency’s on-deck circle.)

Many protesters will likely view Suleiman as a spider’s compromise, however, since he has been Mubarak’s intelligence chief since 1993 and is essentially his right-hand man. The Americans are no doubt torn on this one: he’s described as “deeply distrusting Iran, favoring close relations with Washington, supporting the cold peace with Israel, and against easing up on the Muslim Brotherhood” and is thus a nearly ideal candidate, but a candidate is exactly what he isn’t. He hasn’t been chosen by the people; he is being appointed (to all intents and purposes) by the ruling despot. Whom to back — Suleiman or ElBaradei? ElBaradei hopes to establish himself as the people’s choice, but Suleiman not only slots better into American foreign policy goals but will almost certainly have the army on his side.

As far as Egyptian popular opinion goes: as always, beware the reckless generalization. It is not a given that all Egyptians will be outraged by Suleiman’s appointment — either by the subversion of democracy it represents or by the man himself. Some will welcome the return to law and order a strongman can provide, and that proportion will increase the longer the current anarchy continues.  

WITHIN THE MILITARY: Egypt has the draft. Unlike its policemen, its soldiers are not in uniform voluntarily. From Mubarak’s perspective, the men inside the tanks could have gone either way, and they are indeed showing themselves to be undecided at best: they are neither cracking down on the protesters nor actively defending them. Many striking images are circulating of soldiers emerging from their tanks to be held aloft on the shoulders of protesters, but less mention is being made of the protesters urging the soldiers to open fire on the riot police — a step they refused to take. The army has not formally taken any side and is unlikely to do so until it becomes clearer whether or not Suleiman — an ex-general who is perceived as the army’s candidate — will take power.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: These people are much too smart to get out in front of this until the movement has received strong Western approval. The question, however, is not if they will make their move, but when. The Brotherhood has a real shot in Egypt and they will try to make the most of it. To build support abroad, they will employ what has become their modus operandi: they will try to co-opt Western opinion through the use of strategic buzzwords. (Expect much conspicuous talk about democracy and moderation.) This will not be evidence of their change of heart; it will be a means to their end, which remains a theocracy that is in every way the diametric opposite of a liberal democracy. 

The Brotherhood threat will diminish materially if Suleiman succeeds in taking Mubarak’s chair soon. He’s been keeping a tight lid on Egypt’s Islamists for years and will undoubtedly consider it a top priority to reassert his authority over them.

ISRAEL: Bibi has finally spoken, and what he said reflects Israel’s extreme reluctance to wade into this situation. “The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these relations will continue to exist,” he said. ”We are following with vigilance the events in Egypt and in our region … we must show responsibility and restraint and maximum consideration.” Internally, this mess is seen by some as further evidence that the central problem in the region isn’t us. I would imagine that that point is quietly being made by Israelis in diplomatic circles.

Bibi will likely breathe a sigh of relief if Suleiman is able to take power smoothly and hold on. In addition to keeping Egypt’s Islamists under control, he has long been Egypt’s top envoy to Israel, Fatah and Hamas, according to Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He is pro-Fatah (i.e., pro-PA) and deeply suspicious of Hamas’s Islamism, which is obviously in keeping with Israeli policy. ElBaradei is a big question mark, although he is generally perceived as both wobbly (at best) on Iran and weak. Not an appealing combination.

Israel is worried about the impact of regime change in Egypt on its struggle to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, but that ties into a greater concern with much deeper implications. The peace treaty with Egypt meant the IDF could focus on the northern front, but if the Brotherhood takes over, that will have to change. The Brotherhood has already said that one of its first acts, if given the opportunity, would be to rip up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel is thus reported to be considering a reallocation and reconfiguration of its defense resources. 

IRAN: Publicly, they’re expressing warm satisfaction, but they don’t know which way this is going any more than the rest of us do. Their hard-liners are busy taking credit: “‘Today, as a result of the gifts of the Islamic revolution in Iran, freedom-loving Islamic peoples such as the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and nearby Arab countries are standing up to their oppressive governments,’ said a leading hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.” Iran stands to gain a great deal from the turmoil: their client Hezbollah has just taken control of the government of Lebanon, and if Egypt goes down too, Iran doesn’t need to wait for Jordan to collapse to take on Israel (and Jordan is teetering anyway). An Egyptian descent into Islamism won’t necessarily make an Iranian attack on Israel (by proxies or direct) imminent, but it would make it quite a bit more likely. Remember that Iran already has an arm to Israel’s west: Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

HAMAS: Watching and waiting, like the rest of us. They will be in a much stronger short-term position if Islamists take over Egypt, although they may ultimately be pushed out: Hamas has been struggling for some time with extremists who believe the organization is not sufficiently Islamist. Still, Hamas is bankrolled by Iran, so it’s not going anywhere overnight. If Egypt goes Islamist, it will ultimately be Iran’s strategic decision to make whether or not to stick with Hamas or put their money on a more hard-line horse.

There are 30 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @liberaljim

    Judith – Thanks for another great post. Did you mean to imply that you think the change of command is breaking down in the military? Ie: Soldiers in the tanks have chosen… not have been ordered. From the reports I have read the soldiers’ responses have been more or less consistent – except possibly in Suez. This leads me to think the inactivity is the military’s response and that the command structure is not breaking down. If the military fractures this would be extremely bad news for the Egyptian people.

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    @Franco

    What a great summary, Judith, thank you. Listening to the podcast with you and Claire I found myself nodding in agreement with your conversation about the options being between Islamism and leftism in the Arab world.

    One would think that free-market captialism isn’t that difficult to understand, but nowhere is it taught, nowhere is it reinforced by Hollywood, and in in these countries where socialism prevails, nowhere is it demonstrated. Ironically, socialism destroys the middle class creating a small percentage of elites and a huge poverty class. No one can ever make the leap from poverty to elite status, so clear lines are drawn. Wealth is understood as rich exploiting poor.

    Sad to see that while so many products are made in China, tear gas is made in the USA. I am pessimistic. Too many things can go wrong, while an inside straight flush is needed just for a semi-decent outcome.

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    @Pseudodionysius

    Judith,

    You’ve covered the state of chaos very well. On a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned is the average Israeli citizen today?

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    @outstripp
    liberal jim: Judith – …. Did you mean to imply that you think the change of command is breaking down in the military? ….. · Jan 30 at 4:04am

    I know nothing about Egypt but it is wrong to assume that there really is a “chain of command” in the Western European sense in 3rd world countries. The army is often involved in all kinds of corrupt “extra-curricular” activities like smuggling, movie-making, logging, or whatever. Because of that, different divisions act sort of autonomously.

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    @Pseudodionysius
    outstripp

    liberal jim: Judith – …. Did you mean to imply that you think the change of command is breaking down in the military? ….. · Jan 30 at 4:04am

    I know nothing about Egypt but it is wrong to assume that there really is a “chain of command” in the Western European sense in 3rd world countries. The army is often involved in all kinds of corrupt “extra-curricular” activities like smuggling, movie-making, logging, or whatever. Because of that, different divisions act sort of autonomously. · Jan 30 at 5:08am

    Its a poor analogy, but as I’m reading the stories of the different factions within the military I keep thinking of Caesar’s crossing the rubicon and the Roman civil wars.

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    @liberaljim
    outstripp

    liberal jim: Judith – …. Did you mean to imply that you think the change of command is breaking down in the military? ….. · Jan 30 at 4:04am

    I know nothing about Egypt but it is wrong to assume that there really is a “chain of command” in the Western European sense in 3rd world countries. The army is often involved in all kinds of corrupt “extra-curricular” activities like smuggling, movie-making, logging, or whatever. Because of that, different divisions act sort of autonomously. · Jan 30 at 5:08am

    After serving with 3rd world militaries I can assure you the “command Structure”, ie “chain of command” if often quite ridged. I think this is the case with Egypt. Civilian control over the military is what is often lacking. I believe all of the cabinet Mubarak has appointed are ex-generals. There is plenty of corruption in all militaries, including ours.

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    @JimmyCarter
    Franco:

    Sad to see that while so many products are made in China, tear gas is made in the USA. I am pessimistic. · Jan 30 at 4:12am

    I would not be surprised to find out that the powers that be actually inscribed “Made in USA” on the tear gas. I am skeptical.

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    @Foxman

    Judith – I have never heard the expression “spider’s compromise”. Google does not enlighten. Am I correct that this means no compromise?

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    @katievs

    Thank you, Judith.

    I know so little about the region. But I am full of worries. The apparent lack of leadership in this uprising is especially troubling. If there is no unified vision for a post-Mubarak Egypt, I don’t see how those who would like to live in a freer, more democratic and prosperous country will be able to resist the aggressions of those who have no qualms about using violence to achieve power.

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    @MelFoil

    Cutting off the protester’s communication has contributed to the chaos. Mubarak intended to cut off the crowd’s energy, but what he really did was cut off their ability to establish widely-known rules of engagement and goals, making it clear to people joining in that crime is not any goal, or part of the protest. Better communication would’ve facilitated some needed self-policing. The worst thing is for everybody to be in the dark.

    • #10
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    @AaronMiller

    Thanks for the rundown.

    The Reuters article headlining Drudge this morning about Egyptian looters includes this interesting bit:

    State television said army reinforcements were being sent to sites across Egypt to protect public and private property.

    Islamic leaders have in the meantime called on people to join vigilante groups to protect their homes themselves.

    “Islamic leaders” doesn’t necessarily mean Muslim Brotherhood, but that would be a savvy move on their part.

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    @

    I can’t help but ruminate on the difference between Cairo and Tienanmen Square.

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    @KTCat

    Fabulous synopsis. Thanks for posting this.

    • #13
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    @BrianWatt

    To Claire’s point on another posting, how can anyone not be worried.

    For the time being Israel has not been the focus of attention in all this turmoil. However, should the Muslim Brotherhood and other hardcore Islamists begin to lose support in Egypt and elsewhere, watch how fast Israel is used as a scapegoat. On the flip side, if the Brotherhood gains traction in Egypt and begins to fill a power vacuum, should one begin to become evident, then Israel will have to bolster its limited defense forces on two fronts. One would hope that the positioning of Egyptian army assets to Sinai are there precisely to thwart any radical Islamist moves that would attempt break the peace with Israel.

    And I’m sure it’s painfully obvious to many that Hezbollah could be the wild card in all of this. All it would take is a few missiles launched at Israel for all hell to break loose.

    Is anyone aware of any additional U.S. assets taking up position in the region? The U.S. and French navies are already off the coast of Lebanon. Are additional ships or carrier task forces being sent to the Med?

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    @

    Is it conceivable that the Mubarak regime has ordered its army and police forces to stand down long enough for average citizens to get a taste of what anarchy really looks like – their homes and businesses looted, their wives and daughters raped?

    At this point, it’s quite possible that many Egyptians would welcome restoration of order by troops, regardless of how many heads are broken.

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    @BrianWatt
    Kenneth: Is it conceivable that the Mubarak regime has ordered its army and police forces to stand down long enough for average citizens to get a taste of what anarchy really looks like – their homes and businesses looted, their wives and daughters raped?

    At this point, it’s quite possible that many Egyptians would welcome restoration of order by troops, regardless of how many heads are broken. · Jan 30 at 8:19am

    I would think that is very conceivable, as cold as that is.

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    @
    Brian Watt

    Kenneth: Is it conceivable that the Mubarak regime has ordered its army and police forces to stand down long enough for average citizens to get a taste of what anarchy really looks like – their homes and businesses looted, their wives and daughters raped?

    At this point, it’s quite possible that many Egyptians would welcome restoration of order by troops, regardless of how many heads are broken. · Jan 30 at 8:19am

    I would think that is very conceivable, as cold as that is. · Jan 30 at 8:32am

    It’s what I would do if I were Mubarak. Plus shut off the electricity and water. When people are cold, hungry, thirsty and in the dark, they tend to long for order.

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    @judithlevy
    Pseudodionysius: On a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned is the average Israeli citizen today? · Jan 30 at 4:26am

    I’d put it around a 2. There’s little visible anxiety, but Israelis aren’t big hand-wringers for the most part. We’ll deal with what comes.

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    @judithlevy
    Kenneth: Is it conceivable that the Mubarak regime has ordered its army and police forces to stand down long enough for average citizens to get a taste of what anarchy really looks like – their homes and businesses looted, their wives and daughters raped?

    At this point, it’s quite possible that many Egyptians would welcome restoration of order by troops, regardless of how many heads are broken. · Jan 30 at 8:19am

    A theory has been floating around that Mubarak did just this, in order to provide justification for a full-scale crackdown. Protesters have been heard decrying the army’s tepid attempts to protect them and some are accusing the government of orchestrating it.

    • #19
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    @judithlevy
    K T Cat: Fabulous synopsis. Thanks for posting this. · Jan 30 at 7:36am

    You’re welcome, and thank you, too.

    • #20
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    @judithlevy
    Foxman: Judith – I have never heard the expression “spider’s compromise”. Google does not enlighten. Am I correct that this means no compromise? · Jan 30 at 6:03am

    Foxman, sorry. That’s one I picked up in England a long time ago. It means a compromise with someone who is waiting to stab you in the back — a compromise based on a lie.

    • #21
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    @judithlevy
    Aaron Miller: “Islamic leaders” doesn’t necessarily mean Muslim Brotherhood

    True, but in this instance it almost certainly does.

    • #22
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    @MargaretBall

    Great synopsis, Judith. Thanks for posting it.

    • #23
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    @Karen

    Could you weigh in about Saudi Arabia’s interest in this situation? What would their position be? From what I understand, the monarchies of Jordan and Kuwait were put in place by Saudi Arabia. If Jordan falls, I’d think they’d intervene in some way. What do they stand to lose/gain if Egypt falls to the Muslim Brotherhood?

    Thank you so much, Judith, for your continued posts and contributions. I posted this on Facebook in the hopes that friends will pay more attention to this crisis.

    • #24
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    @Kervinlee

    Let me add my thanks to you, too, Judith. I’ll be heading to my air-raid shelter now.

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    @JoelMiller

    Re ISRAEL: Although momentarily distracted, the Jew-haters will be back on track shortly, blaming decades of frustrated Arab democratic aspirations on an American Middle East policy oriented to stabilizing the region against attacks on Israel.

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    @judithlevy
    Karen: Could you weigh in about Saudi Arabia’s interest in this situation? What would their position be? From what I understand, the monarchies of Jordan and Kuwait were put in place by Saudi Arabia. If Jordan falls, I’d think they’d intervene in some way. What do they stand to lose/gain if Egypt falls to the Muslim Brotherhood?

    Thank you so much, Judith, for your continued posts and contributions. I posted this on Facebook in the hopes that friends will pay more attention to this crisis. · Jan 30 at 10:05am

    Edited on Jan 30 at 10:38 am

    Karen, this is a great question and I’m going to try to answer it for you tomorrow. (It’s pushing midnight here and I have to hit the sack.)

    Thank you for your kind words and for reposting this to Facebook. I appreciate it very much.

    • #27
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    @judithlevy
    Joel Miller: Re ISRAEL: Although momentarily distracted, the Jew-haters will be back on track shortly, blaming decades of frustrated Arab democratic aspirations on an American Middle East policy oriented to stabilizing the region against attacks on Israel. · Jan 30 at 12:09pm

    Edited on Jan 30 at 12:11 pm

    Yep, I’d say that’s a good bet.

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    @judithlevy
    Margaret Ball: Great synopsis, Judith. Thanks for posting it. · Jan 30 at 9:23am

    I appreciate that; thanks.

    • #29
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    @judithlevy
    Kervinlee: I’ll be heading to my air-raid shelter now. · Jan 30 at 10:31am

    I just picked up my family’s gas masks last week. Good timing, huh?

    • #30

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