Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Down with Mubarak, Long Live Mubarakism?

Are the remnants of Hosni Mubarak's regime about to make a stunning comeback?

MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO – "Yasqot, yasqot hokem el a'skar!" shout protesters marching down Talat Harb Street in central Cairo. "Down, down with military rule." It is a stifling September evening and the demonstrators, most in their early 20s, look tired. Their ranks are thinned and their voices strained; it has been a long, hot, and disappointing summer for Egypt's activist community. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta in power since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11, has struggled to meet the demands of Egypt's emboldened populace and has reverted, instead, to the familiar tactics of repression.

"I never thought that seven months after Mubarak's [departure], I'd be chasing after my friends in prisons, military detention facilities, and, in some cases, military trials," said Noor Ayman Nour, a political activist and the son of presidential candidate Ayman Nour. "I've been attending demonstrations since I was 14 years old, and the most violence I have endured and witnessed has been since Mubarak stepped down."

Speaking out against the military, which came to power in a 1952 coup that unseated Egypt's last monarch, has long been a dangerous game. But many activists say it has gotten riskier since the 18-day uprising that unseated Mubarak and left the SCAF at the helm. "I understand that there is a risk," said Ahmed A., a protester who asked that his full name not be used. "Many people have been arrested, but I cannot let [Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi and the Army kill the revolution."

CAIRO – "Yasqot, yasqot hokem el a’skar!" shout protesters marching down Talat Harb Street in central Cairo. "Down, down with military rule." It is a stifling September evening and the demonstrators, most in their early 20s, look tired. Their ranks are thinned and their voices strained; it has been a long, hot, and disappointing summer for Egypt’s activist community. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta in power since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11, has struggled to meet the demands of Egypt’s emboldened populace and has reverted, instead, to the familiar tactics of repression.

"I never thought that seven months after Mubarak’s [departure], I’d be chasing after my friends in prisons, military detention facilities, and, in some cases, military trials," said Noor Ayman Nour, a political activist and the son of presidential candidate Ayman Nour. "I’ve been attending demonstrations since I was 14 years old, and the most violence I have endured and witnessed has been since Mubarak stepped down."

Speaking out against the military, which came to power in a 1952 coup that unseated Egypt’s last monarch, has long been a dangerous game. But many activists say it has gotten riskier since the 18-day uprising that unseated Mubarak and left the SCAF at the helm. "I understand that there is a risk," said Ahmed A., a protester who asked that his full name not be used. "Many people have been arrested, but I cannot let [Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi and the Army kill the revolution."

Tantawi, who is chairman of the SCAF and Egypt’s de facto ruler, was Mubarak’s longtime defense minister. As head of the SCAF, he has dissolved the parliament, overseen a nationwide referendum that amended Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution, and acquiesced, if somewhat begrudgingly, to trying Mubarak and some of his top officials. The field marshal’s rule is absolute, however, and few mechanisms exist for holding him accountable. In such an environment, Tantawi has found it expedient to crush protests and stifle dissent, giving rise to fears that he and other members of the SCAF may not return willingly to the barracks.

The SCAF’s insistence that harsh tactics are necessary to "ensure life goes back to normal," as Tantawi’s colleague, Maj. Gen. Adel Emarah, put it in April, has left many activists as angry as they are unconvinced. As Nour explains, "Because they say they protected the revolution, [the SCAF] claims that everything they do is legitimate." This includes silencing critics and continuing to beat and detain activists. "For me, the revolution began after Mubarak left. The first 18 days were the uprising; now is the revolution."

Crackdown on activists and the press

Mubarak may be gone, but many of his repressive policies remain. Since coming to power, the SCAF has tried almost 12,000 civilians in military tribunals — more than the number who faced military trials during Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, according to Human Rights Watch. In such trials, "there is no procedure at all," said Ahmed Yousry, a researcher at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an Egyptian law firm that works on human rights issues. "They just catch you in the street at a protest or something. Then you sit in jail until you face a military court, where the judge can sentence you to whatever he wants — five, 10 years. Whatever. There are no eyewitnesses, no nothing."

Many who have found themselves in front of military tribunals were arrested because they dared to speak out against the military leaders. In April, blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of "insulting the military." His crime was documenting the series of abuses meted out by the SCAF against civilian protesters. Asmaa Mahfouz, another prominent activist, is awaiting trial on charges of "insulting military rulers and calling for armed operation" after making inflammatory remarks on her Facebook page.

On Sept. 11, Egyptian security forces stormed the headquarters of Al Jazeera Live Egypt, an affiliate of the Doha-based news outfit of the same name, and arrested one of the channel’s engineers. The official explanation offered by the SCAF was that the channel lacked a license to operate, but there is little doubt that Al Jazeera’s meticulous coverage of street protests was the real motivation behind the raid. More concerning was the extension on Sept. 21 of Egypt’s decades-old emergency law, which permits authorities to arrest and detain anyone without levying charges. The controversial law, which was one of the core grievances identified by those who participated in the Jan. 25 uprising, has actually been expanded since the SCAF took control and now encompasses such minor infractions as striking or causing traffic disruptions. It will now be in place until 2013.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service — the notorious mukhabarat, or intelligence, arm of the Interior Ministry and supposedly disbanded in March — has been reconstituted as the "National Security Force" and continues to snuff out public discourse. "The same intervention into universities that we saw under Mubarak is there — writing secret reports on faculty members and their political affiliations," said Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo (AUC). "The endemic culture of corruption is still very much intact in the Interior Ministry." The Sept. 24 deportation of Marie Edmee Josette Duboc, a French scholar and a recently hired member of AUC’s sociology department, is only the latest example of this kind of interference. According to Ahram Online, a state-owned media outlet, Duboc’s previous research on the Egyptian labor movement was the likely cause of her deportation.

The logic of force 

Why are Egypt’s military rulers so anxious to control the political environment? The answer is probably parliamentary elections, slated to get under way sometime in November. With substantial economic interests at stake — between 5 and 40 percent of Egypt’s GDP is controlled by the military — the specter of democracy is deeply unsettling to Egypt’s generals. As a result, "SCAF is offering the people a choice between repression and chaos," Fahmy explained, noting that the revolution was a rebellion against this equation.

Nour had a similar take: "People are made to regret any positive action they take by suffering from ‘instability’ that is, in some cases, manufactured by SCAF…. I would not be surprised if there was a lot of violence and bloodshed [in the run-up to elections] in order to discourage people from wanting democracy."

The military leaders have also drafted the new election law with an eye for resurrecting the system that allowed them to prosper for the last half-century. In particular, the stipulation that one-third of seats be contested by independent candidates — recently reduced from one-half in response to pressure from a wide cross-section of political parties — is a thinly veiled attempt to allow members of Mubarak’s reviled National Democratic Party (NDP) to re-enter parliament. And with significant pockets of NDP support remaining, especially in Egypt’s impoverished and largely tribal hinterland, there is a very real possibility that remnants of the old regime could make a political comeback.

But other than being against democracy, the SCAF has failed to present Egyptians with a clear vision of what it stands for. Its decrees have been haphazard and its policies shortsighted at best. As Fahmy mused somewhat ruefully, "SCAF doesn’t have any grand ideas about where Egypt should be in five or 10 years. It is an alarming, inconsistent, and incoherent policy to say the least."

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